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Now surge-tested, levees around New Orleans get post-Isaac inspections

Louisiana officials and residents protected by a new 133-mile federal levee system sing its praises for withstanding a storm surge and flooding from hurricane Isaac. Coastal areas outside the system didn't fare so well. 

By Staff writer / September 2, 2012

An airboat glided along the Bonnet Carre Spillway in Norco, La., about 30 miles upriver from New Orleans in May 2011. After hurricane Katrina, a new 133-mile federal levee system was built to protect Louisiana. Coastal areas outside the system didn't fare so well in hurricane Issac.

Patrick Semansky/AP


St. Bernard, La.

Hurricane Isaac has come and gone. Floodwaters in southeastern Louisiana are receding. For Chris Gilmore, it's time to take initial stock of how his segment of a $14.5-billion, 133-mile defensive wall of earth, steel, and concrete preformed in the first real-world test of post-Katrina improvements in flood protection for New Orleans and portions of surrounding parishes.

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Isaac was a minimal hurricane when it made landfall overnight Aug. 28-29. But its large size and excruciatingly slow motion – at one point stalling for hours over the southeastern part of the state – built a surge whose height here at St. Bernard Parish, estimated at between 14 and 15 feet, rivaled the height of the surge Katrina delivered.

The view from the top of the levee reveals large patches of deadwood debris lying along the levee's base like so many casualties of a siege assault. Behind the levee and the new pair of massive steel floodgates that close across the four lanes and center median of Louisiana State Road 46, boats on trailers, RV trailers, and even trailers from 18-wheelers are parked along the highway shoulders. They belong to residents who live beyond the levee and who sought its protection for their hard-earned assets.

So how did this segment hold up? "It looks really good," pronounces the US Army Corps of Engineers' Mr. Gilmore, senior project manager for the St. Bernard Parish portion of the federally funded upgraded flood defenses.

IN PICTURES: Hurricane Isaac 

Indeed, so far the most significant levee damage has come from wild hogs, who root around for worms and insects after heavy rains. These "hog holes" will require quick attention. They can accelerate erosion of a levee's earthen base.

Although inspections are still under way, the initial reaction to the post-Katrina improvements to the levees, as well as to the pumping systems that drain water from New Orleans into canals that feed into Lake Ponchartrain, is that they worked as advertised.

The improvements, which include a 1.8-mile-long surge barrier that blocks a navigation canal that, seven years ago, funneled water into St. Bernard Parish and on into New Orleans, already have earned kudos from the likes of Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat.

Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers and others have estimated that if the levee system had been at pre-Katrina levels when Isaac arrived, flooding in New Orleans would have been as bad as the flooding experienced with hurricane Betsy in 1965. Flooding was as serious then in places like the city's Lower Ninth Ward and in St. Bernard Parish as it was during Katrina, when rooftops often were the only refuges from rising water.

Little wonder then that, with Isaac, residents within the improved protective walls, floodgates, and surge barriers also have been singing the system's praises.

Gilmore recalls returning home Thursday night after four days of being "deployed" for Isaac: "I hadn't had a shower in four days. I hadn't really had a good meal in four days." After a shower and a square meal, "my BlackBerry rings. I'm thinking: 'Oh, man. Work.' "

Instead, he says, it's Kenny, a citizen who had attended all the public meetings the corps held as it was planning and adding improvements to the flood-protection system. As Gilmore recalls it, Kenny said, "Man, I just wanted to call you up and say I'm one of your biggest fans, I've supported you through the whole thing. Right now you've got a whole lot more fans than you did before."

With the first contracts for the project awarded in early 2008 and a scant 500 feet left to go, "it's really astonishing that this project has been built so quickly," adds Cindy Brown, who was born and raised in New Orleans and opted to evacuate as Isaac approached. "I'm very appreciative of that."


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