Katrina Update: When the Walls Came Down

By Bennetg

Nov 1, 2005 6:39pm

Tuesday, 5:19pm

When I was a young reporter in New Orleans, I quickly learned that life there was shaped by the knowledge that someday, someday, everything would come crashing down. "Another Camille"—that was the gold standard at the time—was bound to hit eventually. Tourists on Bourbon Street drank Hurricanes.

Of course, we all expected to be blown to smithereens. Instead, it appears, Katrina actually did its worst damage from below.

There’s a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday; word is that engineers, who did a study for the National Science Foundation, will testify that the builders of New Orleans’ levees didn’t understand just how porous the soil beneath them was. On the day after Katrina made landfall, the levees were not overwhelmed by water from above; instead, they gave way at the base.

Three breeches resulted. They were enough to flood the homes of hundreds of thousands of people.

There’s some 20/20 hindsight here, of course. The levees did their job for most of the twentieth century, even though there wasn’t much margin for error. Levee construction at the time was mostly geared to protect farmland, not cities.

Still, say the engineers, Katrina ought not to have done as much damage as it did. By the time it made landfall, the eye of the storm was well east of New Orleans. And the storm was down to a Category 3 by then—certainly a major hurricane, with winds up to 130 mph, but others of that strength have hit populated areas before.

Some of the least flooding was in the French Quarter—not because it’s rich but because it’s old. The city’s first settlers had it right: they built on ground that was above sea level.

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Note from space: Wednesday is five years since the first crew took up residence on the International Space Station. In the morning we’ll be doing an interview with Bill McArthur and Valery Tokarev, the two men on board right now. We’ll play it on ABC News Now, and I’ll let you know here as well what they said.

-Ned

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