New Orleans Officials Say City Can’t Wait for New Flood Gates

August 10, 2007

The French Quarter and other historic neighborhoods in New Orleans may be at risk of flooding for several years under a plan being considered by the Army Corps of Engineers that envisions building massive flood walls and gates east of the city by 2011.

After two years of repairs since Hurricane Katrina, the eastern side of New Orleans, which includes the French Quarter, is now the most vulnerable spot in the hurricane system and the corps is proposing to build a gigantic structure east of the city to block storm surge.

But that work, with a price tag of up to $1 billion, would not be done until 2011 at the earliest. The corps had been expected to install stopgap measures, such as a temporary barge gate and steel plates on flood walls, until the new flood gates are built.

The corps’ Col. Jeffrey Bedey recently told a City Council committee that those measures are proving to be much more difficult technically and logistically than initially believed and would siphon off valuable architects and engineers.

“I wish the Corps of Engineers could snap it its fingers and say here it is,” said Bedey, the commander overseeing levee reconstruction.

An array of problems, from disrupting railroad lines to dealing with tidal flows, complicate the quick fixes, Bedey said. And, he said, there is no guarantee the temporary measures could be built quickly, leading the corps to consider putting all its resources on building the massive flood gates – the “permanent solution.”

He emphasized, though, that all the temporary measures are still “on the table.” The stopgap work would cost up to $100 million.

The corps’ new position has become a new source of frustration for people who watched their city flood because of flawed engineering and who now wonder if the political will to spend the money needed to protect New Orleans from future superstorms is waning.

“It is the United States of America. If we wanted to do something within nine, 10 months, it seems that we could put something in there that would provide better protection than what we have now,” said Carlton Dufrechou, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. “We’re gambling with the lives and properties of everybody on the east bank of New Orleans.”

And Bedey’s arguments didn’t sit well with City Council members.

“We have a vulnerability until then (2011) that is totally unacceptable,” said Stacey Head, a councilwoman overseeing the public works committee.

Independent engineers are concerned that the flood walls along the Industrial Canal, a waterway just 2 miles from Bourbon Street, could collapse if another Katrina-like storm hits New Orleans.

In fact, engineers contend that repairs to the rest of the hurricane system have actually made the western side of the Industrial Canal, the side next to the heart of the city, the weak link because it is lower and weaker than reconstructed parts.

The corps acknowledges the weaknesses – Bedey even called it the “Achilles’ heel” of the system – and the agency is now focusing on it.

The agency is reviewing bids from about 12 international engineering firms that are interested in building the permanent gate-and-levee structure. It would be built across squishy marsh land and stop storm surge from the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a waterway blamed for much of the flooding during Katrina.

If built, the corps says the structure would be one of the largest, if not the largest, civil works project ever undertaken by the agency.

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