A senior U.S. Army general involved in the recovery effort following the devastating hurricane that hit the southern United States says it will take weeks to drain the floodwater from the City of New Orleans. The general also defended the level of preparedness for the disaster, which some have criticized as inadequate. The general says a storm of that magnitude hitting such a vulnerable area is an event that can be expected only once in 200 years.
Lieutenant General Carl Strock says the current flood control system for New Orleans was designed 30 years ago to protect the city from a Category Three hurricane. Hurricane Katrina, which hit the area on Sunday, was Category Four. The general says officials knew that meant the system of barriers that protects the city might fail, and that is why they ordered the city evacuated as the storm approached.
General Strock says this crisis should make officials re-consider what level of protection is really sufficient. "We, the government of this country, from the local up to the national level need to reassess what level of risk is acceptable. We had an assurance that 99.5 percent, this would be OK. We, unfortunately, have had that point-five percent activity here," he said.
General Strock says experts believed a storm strong enough to cause this level of destruction might come only once in 200 to 300 years. He says that is why the relief effort has been so difficult. The general says, even though most people left New Orleans before the storm hit, even though supplies and relief workers were put into place on the fringes of the affected area as the storm approached and even though there was a disaster relief plan ready, without power, communications and passable roads, it was difficult to help the victims in the first days after the flooding. "This is a catastrophe like this nation has never suffered before, and we don't have any experience of this level. We have significant planning in this area. It's just the intensity of the storm, the magnitude of the disaster, is something that we're struggling with," he said.
General Strock says the devastation from the storm and flooding was so great that local people who normally help in a disaster - police officers, doctors and others - themselves became victims in need of help. U.S. military trucks carrying food and water that finally reached survivors at the New Orleans football stadium Friday drove through roads flooded with as much as a meter of water.
The general says the Army Corps of Engineers has several roles in the recovery effort all along the U.S. Gulf Coast. He says his forces are clearing debris, and providing water, power and shelter for victims. The corps is also working to restore navigation aids on the Mississippi River and other waterways, so they can be used to transport evacuees and relief supplies and to restore the commerce that is important to the area's economy.
The corps is also playing a key role in the effort to seal the breaks in the New Orleans levees that protect the low-lying city from floodwaters, and then to get the water out of the city. He says it will be a long process involving, among other things, building elevated roadways above the flooded streets to reach the breaches in the levee system, sealing the gaps with sandbags weighing up to 900 kilograms each dropped from helicopters, and opening levees on the other side of the city to allow the water to flow out. "We're certainly talking weeks, but I would be hesitant to say anything more than that. There are so many variables, I would be reluctant to put a number up. I think we need to just give it some time," he said.
Others have estimated it will be more than a month before the city is fully drained, and considerably longer before people can even begin to return. General Strock says officials are working on plans for interim housing for tens-of-thousands of people, to get them out of shelters like football stadiums and into tents and other types of safer and more comfortable housing. He says there is one idea to build a temporary city for 50,000 people in a green area near the damaged region, and another to house civilians at military bases, but no final plan has been set.
Other U.S. military organizations are also involved in the relief effort, including the U.S. Navy, which is sending supplies by ship and a floating hospital to the region. Earlier this week, the Defense Department established a special task force led by a senior general, who flew into central New Orleans by helicopter on Friday, just as the relief convoy was arriving. He told CNN, "If it was easy, it would have been done already."