Leaking Levees Worry Residents and FEMA

Three years and $3 billion since Katrina, the levees threaten to fail once again

August 31, 2008— -- Three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, residents again look to the levees built to protect their city with the fear that comes with knowing what happens when the levees fail.

On the eve of Hurricane Gustav's expected arrival, many in New Orleans, from residents of the Ninth Ward to the city's mayor to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, have their doubts about whether the levees will hold.

"There is a real likelihood of getting some overtopping. Additionally, rain is a big factor here," said DHS chief Michael Chertoff about water pouring over the tops of the levees.

Three years since Katrina and $3 billion later, the levees still leak and much of the repair work remains incomplete.

"Huge areas of Louisiana are going to be devastated. We're going in essence to see what Katrina didn't destroy, what Rita didn't destroy in 2005 being destroyed now in 2008," said Ivor Van Heerden, a professor at Louisiana State University who wrote a book about why the levees broke during Katrina.

At best the levees are estimated to be able to withstand water levels rising at the rate of an inch and hour. The coming storm, however, promises much more. In some places storm surge could reach 18 feet.

The Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with repairing the levees, says work was being accelerated.

Despite Congress authorizing $12.8 billion to rebuild the levees, only $3 billion has been spent. The engineers blame red tape, saying the studies, approvals and environmental committees have all slowed down the work.

There are some 350 miles of repairs that need to be made and the corps never expected to finish the job before 2011. For now they're doing what they can, closing the floodgates across the region, readying the pumps, and hoping for the best.

" I think if you live in Southeast Louisiana you have to assume a certain risk and we are not going to eliminate all the risks," said Capt. Kevin Waggoner of the Army Corps of Engineers.

It's those risks that don't sit well with Dawn and Eric Young of New Orleans East. Three years after their home was flooded, they finally finished their last repairs just in time for Katrina's cousin Gustav.

They've decided that if even if the city doesn't flood, they're still moving.

"No there's no coming back," said Dawn. "This is it."