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Water Industry News

December 12, 2006

Re-engineering New Orleans

By David R. Butcher

As Nov. 30 marked the end of a mercifully mild hurricane season more than a year after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the U.S. Gulf Coast, here we refocus on the region’s reconstruction. Despite a number of hurdles and criticisms, there has been progress.

When high winds and storms of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the United States Gulf Coast with a vengeance in August 2005, they affected more than 90,000 square miles, causing anywhere from $80-$150 billion in damage as bridges, pipelines, power lines, levees and entire towns were blown down and washed away. The flooding caused by levee system failures produced a level of destruction that is considered unprecedented in U.S. history. The Government Accountability Office estimates that approximately 600,000 households were displaced from affected areas. The population of New Orleans is 57 percent smaller than it was in 2005, with only 187,525 residents, according to Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch.

While some neighborhoods have been reconstructed, much of the region remains a shell of what it was before Katrina, the most expensive disaster in U.S. history.

Today, as significant questions regarding the future of New Orleans and its surrounding region remain, the overarching objective is to rebuild New Orleans and its surrounding region through emphasis on infrastructure systems and the potential for applications of new technology to facilitate reconstruction efforts.

In low-lying New Orleans, where the hurricanes hit hardest, those deciding where — or if — to rebuild homes and businesses must contend with nagging concerns about the strength of levees and flood walls that failed in 2005, The Associated Press reported late last month.

To date, the Army Corps of Engineers has restored 220 miles of levees and floodwalls in the New Orleans flood and storm damage reduction system “to a condition equal to or better than their pre-Katrina condition,” the Corps said earlier this month. The agency is using conservative elevation estimates for building levees and floodwalls: “Until we get the definitive elevation levels…we are designing higher than we expect the final elevations to be…just to be on the safe side,” said Dan Hitchings, a Corps of Engineers official overseeing levee repairs in New Orleans.

Also, the Corps has installed temporary pumps and flood gates at the three major outfall canals and continues to add pumping capacity. Non-federal pump stations have been repaired and improved by the Corps of Engineers in several parishes.

The Corps of Engineers is adding floodgates to canals that can be closed in case of a storm to keep water from coming into the city's canals from Lake Pontchartrain, pic via Army Corps of Engineers.jpgThe new, $6 billion phase involves raising the levees above their new levels, armoring the most vulnerable against erosion and creating pump stations to block the surge from Lake Pontchartrain in future storms. However, although the work continues, Hitchings said the levees and flood walls won’t be any stronger when the next storm season starts on June 1, 2007.

The challenges are enormous. Congress has ordered the Army Corps to upgrade the city’s hurricane protection system to standards first authorized in 1965 — goals that were not reached because of a series of compromises and mistakes, the corps has admitted. After those standards are reached, the corps must upgrade the system further, to resist a storm that has a 1-in-100 chance of occurring in any given year.

The continuing priority of the Corps of Engineers is to complete all approved flood and storm damage-reduction projects in Louisiana while gathering the information needed to design a 100-year level of protection for a reduced level of risk to Louisiana population centers and critical facilities by 2010.

Moreover, the 125-mile-per-hour winds and powerful storm surge from Hurricane Katrina obliterated much of the electrical infrastructure. Consequently, as of Gulf Reconstruction Watch’s August-published “One Year After Katrina” report, 30 percent of the Lower Ninth Ward residents still lacked gas service and 8 percent still lacked electricity, while intermittent power outages remained an unpleasant fact throughout the city of New Orleans.

Further, the storms caused thousands of the city’s network of underground water pipes to break. The city’s Sewerage and Water Board had repaired more than 17,000 leaks as of August, according to the 96-page report, “but the system continues to bleed about 85 million gallons of water a day — more than two-thirds of what’s pumped through the pipes.”

According to the Army Corps of Engineers' September issue of Engineer Update, the following missions are complete: water and ice transport to disaster victims; temporary emergency power; unwatering of New Orleans; temporary roofing on damaged property; installation of hundreds of temporary public structures; and removal of almost 24 million cubic yards of debris.

Yet reconstruction is far from complete and has not been without its hurdles and criticisms. There have been widely publicized accusations of mismanagement and missteps, fraudulent financial handling, unfulfilled political promises, dramatic delays and setbacks, and, on the part of engineers and their analyses, vaguely documents observations.

In fact, although the Corps of Engineers has spent at least $800 million to bring New Orleans’ protective system Workers construct L-walls for a levee that was breached in New Orleans East, pic via Army Corps of Engineers.jpgback to where it was before the Category 3 Hurricane Katrina struck, the agency recently released maps showing that a tropical storm could still flood some city neighborhoods with as much as five feet of water. Further, the agency’s plans to protect the region from storms stronger than Katrina remain controversial, as they rely on massive structures that are costly to build and difficult to engineer on ever-shifting coastal lands.

In addition, consider The New York Times’ accounts this month of work being done in New Orleans...or not being done:

For months, the Army Corps of Engineers raced through the city, frantically patching broken levees and building floodgates to prepare for a hurricane season, now ended, that produced no hurricanes here. That repair work is essentially complete and the corps has moved on to the task of strengthening flood protection in New Orleans beyond its pre-Hurricane Katrina level, hoping to entice residents back. But lately the bulldozers have been idle, and the trucks motionless. The pace has slowed, those in the region say, with little trace of the round-the-clock frenzy of the first phase.

Corps officials say the early work was done in the spirit of addressing a crisis, when they had broad latitude to do the job. Officials on the ground, who call the current lull a “strategic pause,” say the new work has to be planned with great care. And they say it’s a greater challenge to design and build new flood protection — the bulk of the second-phase work — than it is to patch breaches.

It is all very different from the first phase, when the corps group known as Task Force Guardian worked in a city so deeply devastated that virtually no one questioned its plans. Because levees that are built higher must also become wider, land must be acquired. And “these days, state and local governments, neighborhood groups, historical societies and others must be consulted before the Corps can push forward,” the NYT reported.

The agency still has not finished its first-phase work on the floodgates for the city’s drainage canals. At the $85 million 17th Street Canal project, which has presented the most challenges, the corps has had to do extra work to firm up the mushy soil at the site, and new pumps have had technical problems. There are also not enough pumps at the site to push the enormous amounts of water that would drain into the canals during a hurricane.

To save money, the corps will skip interim steps on some projects and go straight for the aforementioned higher, 100-year level of protection. However, that will leave the city at risk until 2010 at least, argue those who oppose the move. The corps has also scaled back plans to armor the levees against being scoured away when water flows over the top.

While the challenges are multi-faceted, it is clear that the role of engineering systems and technology will be significant, recently noted a “Rebuilding New Orleans” forum of a handful of major U.S. universities and the American Society of Civil Engineers, funded by a United Engineering Foundation grant.

The engineering forum in September said:

Without doubt, the physical, social and economic landscape of a reconstructed New Orleans region will hinge on the investments made in infrastructure (sanitation and water systems, power, communications, information technology, flood protection, transportation, and essential facilities) and in the interplay of these technologically based systems with social, economic and political systems.

“Much of the infrastructure,” the forum summed up aptly, “will be, or should be, re-engineered to ensure that the city is economically sustainable, secure for investment, safe for its residents, and able to withstand future natural disasters.”