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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. 

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But residents outside the federally funded system didn't fare as well. Communities along the western edge of Lake Ponchartrain flooded, and then communities on the eastern edge flooded as Isaac's winds shifted.

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Plaquemines Parish, which sports an 8-1/2 foot, nonfederal levee, experienced severe flooding that killed two people. Dozens had to be rescued, many of them people who ignored mandatory evacuation orders.

Indeed, standing atop the levee in St. Bernard Parish – an earthen embankment topped with a steel-and-concrete T wall to an overall height of 32 feet, anchored with steel H-beam piles up to 140 feet long, and stretching in each direction as far as the eye can see – Gilmore makes an inspection reminiscent of inspections royal engineers must have performed after a siege of a medieval walled city. Those outside the wall tended to work close to the land – or in southern Louisiana's case, close to the sea – with strong family ties to their spanning generations. When the invaders came, some could find refuge within the walls, others fled the area, while those who couldn't or wouldn't leave stayed and took it on the medieval chin.

Governor Jindal and US Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana are calling on the federal government to extend levee protection beyond its current boundaries. By some estimates, beginning in 2006 Congress authorized the US Army Corp of Engineers to spend as much as $800 million on levee improvements in some of the areas that experienced flooding as a result of Katrina. But lawmakers did not follow through with the appropriations, leaving the corps with an approval to spend money it didn't have.

And there are competing demands for the money. Clint Dawson, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the team producing the computer models of storm surge that helped inform the design of New Orleans's system, suggests that such proposals "have to compete with a lot of other projects that are perhaps equally important."

After hurricane Ike in 2008, it became clear that similar efforts at storm-surge protection would help some parts of the Houston area, another hub of the enegry industry. Tight funds are among the factors that have kept such projects from moving forward, he says.

Robert Whitman, a consultant for Entergy's Waterford 3 Nuclear Power Plant and a resident of La Place, La., on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain where flooding occurred, notes that beyond levees, improved zoning regulations, building-permit processes, and a reality check home buyers need to perform on a prospective house also play roles in reducing people's vulnerability to surge-related flooding.

With so much attention on steel-and-concrete projects, bolstering wetlands also remains key, adds Ms. Brown, who directs the Nature Conservancy's Gulf of Mexico Program. Without the wetlands, levees become a first line of defense against surge, rather than a last line.

Several restoration projects – also part of the Army Corps of Engineers' efforts – are on the books, she says.

And the funding stream may be somewhat more secure than money appropriated by Congress. The Restore Act, which President Obama signed in July, is expected to aim some 80 percent of an estimated $25 billion in fines against BP and other companies responsible for the Deepwater Horizon blowout at Gulf states.

"This represents a real opportunity to get some of these restoration projects built," Brown says. "Time will tell exactly how the funds are spent. But that's one source of money folks are really banking on to make sure some of these projects all along the coast are paid for."

But more will need to be done. The price tag for coastal restoration in Louisiana alone has been estimated at as much as $50 billion.


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