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Massive Levee Repair Project Set in Motion

The Army expects the crash program to cost $400 million over eight months to restore a certain -- but not full -- measure of protection.

October 15, 2005|Ralph Vartabedian and Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writers

In a race against next year's hurricane season, the Army Corps of Engineers this week began one of the largest and most urgent programs to rebuild New Orleans: repairing a levee system left devastated by Hurricane Katrina in late August.

Surveys of the damage indicate that about 50 miles of levees and storm walls were either destroyed or heavily damaged, requiring repairs that will cost an estimated $400 million over the next eight months, according to internal Army estimates.

Within weeks, the Army hopes to have dozens of contracts issued for the work, mobilizing teams of local and national contractors. The job will require moving 3 million cubic yards of dirt, enough to build a mound 1,575 feet high covering an entire football field.

If successful, the crash program will restore a measure of hurricane protection to the region, but will still fall short of the defense needed against storms as big as or bigger than Katrina.

Army officials say any efforts to quickly erect bigger levees and storm walls are well beyond the scope of what can be accomplished before the start of the 2006 hurricane season in June, and they have no authority to build a better system.

"We are constrained by time," said Col. Lewis Setliff, who is directing the effort.

State and local officials, who have sharply criticized the federal response to the disaster, say they want the levees rebuilt as quickly as possible but expect the Army to do more than simply rebuild broken floodwalls.

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, the state agency that handles flood protection, wants the corps to complete floodwall projects planned for Lake Pontchartrain but not completed when Katrina struck, said Cleo Allen, an agency spokeswoman.

"Because of [soil] subsidence and other issues, some of the projects were not complete to begin with," Allen said Friday.

"Our position is we would like to see the damaged areas repaired and the levees completed to their authorized level of protection. Once that's done, we are hoping to focus on protecting against a Category 5 storm," in which winds exceed 155 mph.

There are three separate investigations -- by the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Science Foundation and the American Society of Civil Engineers -- into why the levees failed. The results of those investigations are expected in the weeks and months ahead.

Improvements recommended by the investigation could be incorporated into the project as the rebuilding proceeds, Setliff said.

Setliff said he anticipates that nearly all of about 45 contracts to rebuild the levees will be issued by the end of October.

About 15% of the money will be set aside for small local contractors, who in many cases are more experienced in levee work, he added. The work is being done under a 1984 law that allows the Army to immediately rebuild damaged federal flood control systems, Setliff said.

Local officials say they generally accept the Army's strategy. "All we can really expect and hope for is that they seal up the breaches as fast as they can," said Fran Campbell, executive director of the East Jefferson Levee District.

Nonetheless, some state officials say they are concerned about the pace of the project, because the Bush administration is still deciding whether to waive requirements that the state share in the rebuilding expense. Normally, the federal government covers about 70% of levee projects and the state covers the balance.

Last month, as part of an ambitious "blueprint" for changes in the region's hurricane protection, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) called for full funding for Army Corps projects that had been stalled by lack of support by the Bush administration.

Adam Sharp, a spokesman for Landrieu, says the senator accepts that the Army needs to move fast but "hopes the Army Corps will use its lessons learned from Katrina in such a way that we don't limit future opportunities to build our levees stronger and even better."

So far, the Army is not even sure why the levees and storm walls failed.

The three investigating teams are examining the breaches and reviewing engineering records, but they have not yet reached any conclusions about possible defects. At least some of the levees failed because Katrina was simply bigger than the levees were designed to handle, investigators say.

Katrina washed out about 15% of the region's 350 miles of levees and caused five breaches in concrete storm walls in New Orleans, one of the main causes of flooding within the city.

But the broader damage to earthen levees outside the city also contributed to flooding and to massive devastation to communities south of New Orleans, along the Mississippi River delta.

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