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Deal Will Boost New Orleans' Flood Protection

The federal government is to upgrade levees and offer insurance under the $2.5-billion plan.

April 13, 2006|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

In a key deal that allows major reconstruction of New Orleans, the federal government is expected to invest an additional $2.5 billion to protect against a 100-year flood, officials said Wednesday.

Under a complex decision, federal agencies agreed to upgrade the city's system of levees and begin offering federal flood insurance to property owners.

The program would raise levees by as much as seven feet, significantly strengthen many sections of concrete storm walls and require new homes to be elevated by at least three feet above the existing ground level.

The plan "will provide a greater degree of certainty and confidence" to residents who have been waiting to rebuild homes and businesses, said Donald E. Powell, federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding.

The $2.5-billion program is in addition to a $3.5-billion effort to repair damage to the levees from Hurricane Katrina and install floodgates that would protect at least four canals in the city from storm surges.

Under the decision, the Army Corps of Engineers said it could upgrade the levee system and certify its ability to withstand a 100-year flood, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to issue advisory flood maps for rebuilding and giving a green light to the federal flood insurance program to begin backing private insurance policies.

The arrangement is based on preliminary risk estimates for a 100-year flood, but nonetheless meets federal regulations for flood insurance. A number of key decisions remain, however.

Local and state agencies are supposed to contribute about 35% of any future investment in levees, a heavy burden for a state still economically devastated by Katrina. Since Katrina, the federal government has absorbed the full cost of levee repairs, and negotiations are underway for the new program to be picked up by federal taxpayers as well.

The new $2.5-billion program was put together after an unexpected flap that developed in the last month, when the corps told FEMA that it could not certify that its levees would withstand a 100-year flood. Until then, FEMA thought such certification would be perfunctory and that rebuilding could begin.

But investigations of levee failures during Katrina forced the corps to reevaluate the system and take a more cautious approach. Even once the levees are upgraded to a 100-year-flood standard, they would not protect the city against a Category 5 hurricane or possibly even smaller storms, corps officials have warned.

The announcement Wednesday marked a sharp reduction from preliminary cost estimates released this month. Originally, the corps estimated it would cost $6 billion to upgrade the levees to achieve 100-year-flood protection.

The lower cost was achieved in part by eliminating for now levee improvements for Plaquemines Parish, a narrow strip of land that reaches into the Gulf of Mexico along the Mississippi River. Powell said it would cost an estimated $1.6 billion to upgrade Plaquemines, which has 2% of the metropolitan area's population.

Powell's agency, the Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding, was created within the Department of Homeland Security to oversee reconstruction of areas devastated in August and September by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Plaquemines is an important center for the oil and gas industry, but federal officials said Wednesday that none of the three New Orleans-area refineries, accounting for about 3% of U.S. refining capacity, was located in the parish. The parish has a network of oil and gas pipelines, but federal officials said those did not need levee protection.

A spokeswoman for Powell said discussions would begin soon with Congress for supplemental funding for the levee work.

Among improvements needed to provide 100-year-flood protection are the elimination of so-called concrete I-walls, which are steel-reinforced concrete walls built atop earthen levees. A number of those walls breached during Katrina. The corps plans to replace those I-walls with T-walls, which have stronger steel foundations and substantial concrete aprons at the base of the walls.

Under the current schedule, the corps expects to complete repairs to damaged sections of levees by June 1. By September 2007, it would complete a number of upgrades to the levee system, including the construction of storm gates that would close off three internal drainage canals and the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, all of which had levees that breached during Katrina.

By 2010, the corps plans to complete upgrades to the levees to provide 100-year-flood protection.

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