Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana. (Bill Haber / Associated…)
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), a New Orleans native who has called for overhauling the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers following Hurricane Katrina, was in his home state's lower parishes Monday to shadow corps staff. He talked with The Times by phone about what he was looking for, where he plans to go in coming days and his family's storm preparations.
Q: Why did you decide to head down to the lower parishes Monday?
A: I wanted to stay as close to relevant federal agencies, particularly the corps, as possible to see how the post-Katrina greater New Orleans protection system they have built performs.
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Q: Where will you be tomorrow?
A: Tomorrow, before it gets too windy, I plan to be right in with the corps at their New Orleans headquarters to observe what they do.
Q: How do you expect the protection system, particularly the levees, will fare when tested by the storm?
A: Hopefully it won't be a big test. I’m confident our greater New Orleans hurricane protection system is much, much stronger than it was the day before Katrina.
Q: Are you concerned about storm surge?
A: Storm surge is usually the greatest danger. The good news for this storm seems to be that it’s a [Category] 1 or 2 hurricane. The bad news is the track had been moving steadily to the west, which could put the storm to the west of New Orleans, and we all know the east side of the storm is the most ferocious, with the worst winds.
Q: Are you hearing from people in New Orleans who are concerned and trying to decide whether to evacuate?
A: Most people here have a very good feel for these things. The great majority of those in low-lying areas have evacuated, including my family.
Q: How has it been for you dealing with the corps?
A: I have been in close contact with Col. Fleming, who has been extremely professional. I have not talked with FEMA, but my staff has, and they have been a lot more proactively engaged ahead of the event than ever before.
Q: What will you be watching for tomorrow?
A: I’m particularly interested in about eight small gaps in the system where the corps had to do temporary fixes like sheet piling and Hesco baskets. Of course, the whole system is only as strong as its weakest link. I visited one site in Plaquemines [Parish] with [Parish President] Billy Nungesser today. They were closing it pretty effectively.
Q: Are there other areas you're concerned about?
A: There are populated areas like Houma outside the hurricane protection area that are not nearly as well protected. That's a coastal area that’s quite vulnerable that's not in the post-Katrina system.
There are unfortunately significant populated areas outside of this post-Katrina system, including lower Jefferson Parish, Plaquemines, Lafourche and Terrebonne, eastern St. Tamany and western St. Charles Parish.
Q: Is there something you think people outside the New Orleans area need to know about that protection system, which has seen billions of dollars in improvements since Katrina?
A: It’s important and it's money well spent, not just for us locally but for national assets like the ports and oil and gas production.
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