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Building Better Levees Before the Next Hurricane Season


In New Orleans, where recovery from Hurricane Katrina is still progressing slowly six months after the disaster, there is now a race against time to shore up defenses against another hurricane. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from New Orleans, workers are trying to repair and reinforce levees with only three months to go before the next hurricane season begins.

The work here goes on at a frantic pace. Contractors know that hurricane season begins on June first and that nature does not always follow a schedule. In past years hurricanes have occasionally formed well before that date.

One levee runs along the Industrial Canal and is one of several sites around New Orleans where contractors working under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are trying to repair levee breaches and strengthen existing infrastructure.

Project Manager Stuart Waits says the breach that occurred here was a result of what he calls scouring, which means water that came over the wall washed away its foundation. "The water came over the top of the wall and washed out the soil on the backside of the wall, the protected side of the wall. So this is the neighborhood side and this is the water side," he points out in photographs.

A reporter clarifies, "So, that would be what was holding the wall up, in other words?"

Mr. Waits confirms that. "Correct. You can see from this picture it was steel sheeting with a concrete cap, it needs the soil pressure on both sides in order to function properly. So when the water came over the top and scoured out the back, you need the soil pressure on that side, and it pushed the wall over."

The water that rushed through the breach knocked over everything in its path. The houses that once stood here were all swept away by the raging floodwaters.

In order to prevent that from happening again, the Corps of Engineers is driving steel piles deep into the ground to reinforce the new levee wall, which Waits says is designed to prevent scouring. Showing an illustration, Mr. Waits describes the new structure. "It is called a T-wall structure because it is an inverted T. The real foundation support is the piles. These piles are being driven down to elevation minus 70, that is 70 feet below sea level."

The man overseeing this project is U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lieutenant Colonel David Berczek. He says the reinforced levees will be far better than what the city had before Katrina.

"The levees will be repaired to their authorized heights. In some cases there was subsidence so they will be a little bit taller than what they were and we are encouraging some scour resistance into the flood walls that will improve their strength."

In other words, Colonel Berczek says residents will be protected when this year's hurricane season begins. "If I were to live in New Orleans, I would feel that on the first of June I would have adequate hurricane protection."

The work being done here is of interest to people who live far away from New Orleans.

Flood control experts and engineers from around the country come here to see what is being done. Bob Faletti is with the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division of the Corps of Engineers in Cincinnati, Ohio. "It is hard to describe the impact," he says, "the power of wind and water, and if you compound that with earthquakes and the personal devastation. What can we, as a government agency, do to help those folks? That is what we need to do. We need to make sure that we are prepared as a team to respond to the natural disaster that could befall the area."

The eyes of the world will be on this area in the coming months to see how well these new levees protect a city still reeling from last year's disaster.