After $1.7 billion worth of work on a patchwork of levees, pumps, flood walls, canals and floodgates, New Orleans as a whole remains alarmingly vulnerable to another Katrina-like catastrophe, according to scientists and engineers who have studied the improvements and residents, politicians and watchdogs who have spoken to ABC News.
"Is it safe?" asked Roy Dokka, professor of civil engineering at Louisiana State University. "It's safer, not safe. It's better than what we had before Katrina, but is isn't bulletproof."
Two years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' flood protection system remains a tangled paradox of hope and dread, strong and weak spots, reality and fantasy. Billions are flowing into the city's infrastructure coffers, and relentless scrutiny and testing has taught the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers some valuable lessons, but no one knows whether the massive and ongoing rebuilding efforts will outrun the next major storm.
Meanwhile, the city is slowly sinking while the sea is rising, and the state's wetlands barriers are disappearing faster than Louisiana could hope to rebuild them, experts say.
"Pre-Katrina, we weren't safe at all," said Oliver Houck, an environmental law professor at Tulane Law School. "We just thought we were. Are we safer than that [now]? Clearly. … But better than poor ain't great. And we are years away from being even good, much less great."
There seems to be a consensus that this is not where anyone wanted to see New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina.
Considerable criticism has fallen on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been largely responsible for flood protection in New Orleans since the 1960s.
The corps contends that it has made dramatic improvements to the system and there's evidence it has … in some places. The spot where the storm water surge broke through the Industrial Canal and flooded New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward is one of the strongest, highest walls in the system now, though there is barely anyone left there to protect.
Others areas are said to be untested or weak. The corps is working with a $15 billion budget to come up with a flood protection plan that would shield the city from a 100-year storm by the fall of 2011. That's far less than half the strength of Katrina.
Supporters of the agency contend that it's doing the best it can under enormous political and logistical pressure. They say the corps' work force splits its time and resources between short-term fixes to deal with immediate threats like the impending hurricane season and creating a long-term solution — all the while crossing its fingers that the city isn't swamped with another major hurricane before it can complete its massive workload. Corps officials says they are hard at work at both assignments.
But critics in the local environmental science and coastal engineering communities say that the corps' entire mode of thinking — largely in terms of structure building — is outdated and fatally flawed.