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Would New Orleans levees hold for a second Katrina?

Five years after Katrina, New Orleans is rebuilding. The system designed to protect against future storms is better than before, but questions remain about whether it is fortified enough.

By Staff writer / August 29, 2010

Contractors for the Army Corps of Engineers build a flood wall along the Harvey Canal last year. It's designed to better protect the New Orleans area from flooding during future hurricanes like Katrina.

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New Orleans

Normally, moving to a new house in a new neighborhood is a transition many can feel good about. But for Randy Pratt, an electrician, moving his family into a brick home in this city’s Lower Ninth Ward makes him shrug at the possibility of lightning striking twice.

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He now lives a short walk from where a concrete barrier collapsed on Aug. 29, 2005, allowing rushing water to destroy the neighborhood that only recently started to rebuild. Does moving back to what many consider the scene of the crime make him hesitate?

“I’ve been around levees my entire life,” says Mr. Pratt. “I just hope it’s safe, that’s all.”

IN PICTURES: Hurricane Katrina five years later

His faith in the city’s 350-mile levee system, and therefore in the US Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency in charge of maintaining it, is something that everyone living in this city shares in different proportions.

There is good reason.

What was first reported as the worst natural disaster in US history was later redefined as a breakdown in communication and maintenance by the Army Corps. Volumes of material written in the wake of hurricane Katrina, including a report released by the agency in 2006, determined that the flooding that drowned 80 percent of this city was due to faulty levee design, eroding materials, inconsistent levels of resiliency in different sections, pumping stations that were not designed to work during large storms, and other hazards that undermined the protection most had assumed was there.

“We got damaged by an engineering failure that caused the levees to break. We couldn’t control that. The federal government owns and operates the levees,” says Mayor Mitch Landrieu, interviewed in his city hall office earlier this month.

Expecting a hurricane, not a flood

Mr. Landrieu says despite the warnings, many city residents did not evacuate because waiting out hurricanes was common and there were few expectations of what came next. “We were expecting a hurricane but we got a flood,” he says.

Five years later, the city is rebuilding, its troubled public school district is undergoing dramatic reforms, and entrepreneurship is energizing neighborhoods and attracting new residents. The system designed to protect the city is certainly better than what existed before the storm, but questions remain about whether it is fortified enough.

Col. Robert Sinkler, commander of the Hurricane Protection Office for the Corps, says the ring of the levees before Katrina operated as “a system in name only.” Its weakness, he says, was the result of floodwall sections that were not consistent in their construction strength or maintenance. Missteps, like the use of dredging materials instead of construction-quality soil or clay, to build barriers in some areas, or the integration of sections that forsook structural resiliency for height, led to a “patchwork” of protection.

The $15 billion allocated by Congress to streamline the system is being used to mend areas that toppled, upgrade pumping facilities, build new floodgates, and reconstruct walls where there was obvious structural weakness.

This time, tougher foundation material, such as a mixture of construction clay and cement, is being used in the soil to hold structural sections of wall designed as an inverted T instead of their previous I-shape. The new design is considered stronger, allowing steel pillars to bracket each end into the ground. Completion is expected in June 2011.

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