Is New Orleans Safe? Will It Ever Be?

The MRGO is a commercial/navigational canal built by the corps in the 1950s and 1960s as a shortcut between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans. It never brought in the commerce it was expected to, and inadvertently destroyed miles of barrier wetlands to its east in Lake Borgne. Those wetlands, environmental scientists say, were St. Bernard's natural protection against flooding.

"Why is it that we didn't drown for the past 500 years down here?: Houck asked. "We had this linear levee of wetlands between us and the gulf. The storms just got knocked down before they got here."

The corps acknowledges the damage done, and the continued danger the parish faces from eastern-moving storm surges like Katrina.

"In the here and now today, we're not where we need to be and we acknowledge that," Bedey told ABC News when asked about the levee protection in St. Bernard Parish.

Environmental scientists say those wetlands were a crucial protection for St. Bernard Parish. The canal is now scheduled to be shut down and dredged. MRGO is widely blamed for driving gulf storm surges right into the V-shaped funnel area on Lake Borgne and also overrunning St. Bernard Parish. The corps disputes this claim and says the closure of the canal is based on "economic and environmental reasons and not for any reason related to Hurricane Katrina," according to a news release issued earlier this month.

This conflict is at the heart of the criticism of the corps' extensive efforts to rebuild a stronger flood protection system in New Orleans.

"No region in the country owes more to the corps for its very existence than this one," Houck said. "And no region has been more wrecked than this one by the Corps of Engineers and their mistakes. … The problem is that the corps' new levee system program continues to create the same funnels and continues to rely on the same levees that destroyed the marshes around MRGO," Houck said.

"We lost 40,000 acres of marsh due to that one canal," he said. "That's a lot of levee protection. The cyprus swamps that were destroyed by the [MRGO] knocked down storm heights better than any canal you can imagine. But they're all dead. They're all gone. Now a project that restores levees around New Orleans is fine, but what you need to do is integrate in that project maximum cyprus rebuilding, marsh rebuilding, get those natural systems back below."

Bedey acknowledges the need to rebuild the wetlands, but says it's not as simple as critics are making it out to be.

"I can absolutely tell you that there is a core cadre of people, both internal and external to the corps, that are working day in and day out on that very issue. … It's not as readily apparent as the 100-year level of protection where you see this [levee] right here, but the commitment is there. The work behind what we do? How we go about doing it? It's not as simple as a little puzzle."

The latest corps' plan is to build some form of a barrier wall in Lake Borgne to prevent eastern-driven storm surges from pouring into the city. The plan may include a temporary floodgate at the mouth of the funnel.

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