Is New Orleans Safe? Will It Ever Be?

Two years later, ABC News looks at the state of New Orleans' levee system.

Aug. 28, 2007 — -- 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.

Castle Walls

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.

"They're not the Army Corps of Nature," Tulane's Houck told ABC News. "They're the Army Corps of Engineers. They suck mud. They pour concrete. That's what they learn in school. That's what they go out and do. They're thinking levees. They're thinking pumps. They're thinking concrete. They're thinking 'beat nature. We're the nature-beating organization.' You go to their libraries, go to their [public relations] shops and just pull the films of the conquest of this or the conquest of that. They're conquistadores."

"You can't beat nature down here. You're going to have to live with it. You can't beat it. And the idea that we're going to build some kind of castle down here with big enough castle walls to hold out the Gulf of Mexico is fantasy," said Houck.

'Catastrophic Failure'

While there was plenty of finger-pointing to go around at the time, Hurricane Katrina was largely viewed as a damning indictment of the corps' flood protection duties in the Crescent City. Former U.S. Corps of Engineers commander and chief engineer Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock publicly acknowledged as much in June 2006, when he said that it was a "catastrophic failure."

As a result, all the corps' work in New Orleans — past, present and future — has come under intense scrutiny from all sides, in and outside the government. The work has been studied, critiqued, debated and reviewed seemingly endlessly.

"We take input from a lot of people," said Karen Durham-Aguilera, the civilian director of Task Force Hope, the corps' hurricane protection system in New Orleans. "We deal almost on a daily basis with local governments, with levee authorities … with neighborhood groups, with the convention and visitors bureau, with the insurance industry."

"We answer to a lot of people," she said.

So after Katrina, the corps, in conjunction with a vast interagency task force, built a storm modeling system that can track 152 different storm paths, ranging from a 25-year to a 5,000-year storm. It has used that modeling system as a blueprint to determine which areas in the city's flood protection plan are the neediest.

"We have strengthened levees," said Durham-Aguilera. "We have strengthened transition points were soil meets cement. We have improved flood walls. We have put surge barriers in. … We have added pumping capacity. We have done a lot of things, and based on our various modeling … the hurricane system is better and stronger than it was prior to Katrina."

One key new feature of the system are floodgates along the northern wall of the city bordering Lake Ponchartrain, built in conjunction with new pumps so strong that corps officials say they can drain an Olympic-size swimming pool in seven to eight seconds. The agency is also planning a new drainage system that could substantially alleviate flooding in some parts of the city.

"This is a holistic approach," said the corps' Col. Jeff Bedey, commander of the corps' Hurricane Protection office. "This is a systems approach to hurricane protection … not a system in name only, but truly a system."

One place where the system isn't working so well yet is St. Bernard Parish, the low-lying parish on the southeastern edge of the city.

City 'Wrecked' by 'Mistakes'

Experts, studies and eyewitnesses say the most serious flaws in the rebuilt system of levees and flood walls are along the 76-mile Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (known locally as "Mister GO") canal on the eastern edge of the Plaquemines/St. Bernard Parish region.

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.

But shorter-term options are on the table too, and many in New Orleans residents are demanding they be put in place. At an Aug. 9 meeting between the corps and two city council committees, several short-term solutions were discussed. One is to build a $100 million temporary gate near the mouth of the funnel. That project couldn't be completed until the start of the 2009 hurricane season, according to Bedey.

Adding 3-foot plates to the tops of I walls along the existing MRGO canal is another short-term option, at a predicted cost of $30 million to $50 million, but also can't be completed until 2009. But residents and politicians from battered St. Bernard Parish oppose the temporary gate, saying it'll push water back out into the lake and overrun MRGO, again flooding St. Bernard in a storm.

Bedey reportedly responded that the St. Bernard walls along MRGO would be fortified as part of the project. It was one of many objections that volleyed back and forth over virtually every option offered during the Aug. 9 meeting, according to news reports.

"Bedey said the agency hopes to decide within a few weeks whether to adopt any of the temporary fixes or to just hope that a major hurricane doesn't hit the city while the corps concentrates on completing a long-term plan to protect the city from the surge caused by a 100-year hurricane," the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported earlier this month.

Thinking 'Out of the Box'

In the end, many of the most passionate experts say the only realistic way to "save" New Orleans is to scale it back and abandon some of the most low-lying areas.

"The problem is, 'Where's the leadership?'" asked Louisiana State's Dokka. "What are we going to do? To me there are certain places [in New Orleans] that are just too dangerous to live in, and they need to be partitioned like a ship. So then we can go [to] the rest of the country and say, 'OK, this is a dangerous place to live, but we're going to reduce the risk as much as we can.' There's stuff you can do, yes, but there's no leadership, because people are saying 'We want to make it all better and put it back to what it was.' You can bring back New Orleans, but it'll be a smaller, but more resilient New Orleans."

An engineering expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has been deeply involved in reviewing the corps' work agrees.

"What I would like to see in some way is if there were more time to think about this, to think out of the box, to come up with solutions that don't rely on rebuilding bigger and better in the same footprint," said the engineer, who requested anonymity because he doesn't have approval to comment publicly on the progress of the flood protection system. "You'd want to refocus strategy a little bit, and that may not be rebuilding in the same footprint."

"Rather than hope we can control nature, which I think in the end nature will always win, we need to live with nature in that respect and adapt to that," he said.

But how do you draw a community back home if you can't promise it protection? It's certainly a goal both the corps and its critics share.

"At the end of the day, this isn't about the 100-year level of protection," Bedey told ABC News. "This isn't about the wetlands. This is about helping to restore faith and confidence in the people, such that the people want to come back and the businesses want to come back."

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