[StBernard] Time, money press La. storm project

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Wed May 28 07:49:23 EDT 2008

Time, money press La. storm project
By Rick Jervis, USA TODAY
NEW ORLEANS - Despite new flood walls and re-strengthened levees, some of
the areas most devastated by Hurricane Katrina remain perilously exposed to
a repeat of the 2005 disaster, according to city leaders and hurricane
Chief among the concerns, as hurricane season approaches, are money and
time. The $14.6 billion hurricane protection system covering 350 miles
around New Orleans may not be ready by its projected 2011 completion date,
if funds are not delivered in time.

"It seems a little optimistic that all this work will be completed by 2011,"
says Garret Graves, director of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's Office of
Coastal Activity. "The state is a little concerned that (the Army Corps of
Engineers) won't meet the schedule."

The corps insists that the greater New Orleans area is safer today that it
was when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed into the region more than two
years ago, creating the costliest disaster in U.S. history.

A report last month by the American Society of Civil Engineers said the Army
corps should be more direct with the public about potential problems and
risks. Particularly at risk could be the Lower 9th Ward and neighboring St.
Bernard Parish.

Congress directed the corps to repair the damage done by Katrina and build a
new protection system of flood walls, armored levees, floodgates and
barriers to withstand a 100-year storm, or those with a 1% chance of
occurring in any year. Katrina was a 396-year storm.

Some of the challenges confronting the project:

Money. U.S. lawmakers still haven't fully approved $5.8 billion needed to
complete the project. If Congress doesn't approve the money by the end of
the summer, it likely won't reach the corps until next year, delaying the
project by at least a year, says Karen Durham-Aguilera, director of the
corps's Task Force Hope, which is leading the project. State and local
municipalities also have been asked to contribute $1.8 billion in a match,
which local leaders say will be difficult to do.

Clay. The corps is still exploring ways to get more of the earthen clay
needed to armor the levees. More than 50 million cubic yards of the clay is
still needed, says Col. Jeffrey Bedey, head of the corps' Hurricane
Protection Office in New Orleans.

Size. The sheer scope of the project has forced the corps into new ways of
operating, including incorporating input from community and industry
leaders. This makes for a longer, but better, process, says Durham-Aguilera,
who oversaw corps projects in Iraq before moving to New Orleans. "This
process is at a level I've never seen anyplace I've ever worked," she says.

In April, the corps took the unusual step of awarding a nearly $700 million
"design-build" contract to the Shaw Group, a Baton Rouge-based engineering
firm, to build a storm barrier near Lake Borgne, southeast of New Orleans. A
28-foot storm surge rushed through the area during Katrina, ravaging St.
Bernard Parish, the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East.

Design-build contracts allow the contractors to design as they go, allowing
them to adjust for unexpected situations. It is the biggest design-build
contract in corps history, Bedey says.

But as the corps proceeds toward the 100-year storm protection system, some
areas are being protected faster than others.

For example, massive temporary pumps were installed at the mouths of the
city's drainage canals at the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, which will lock
down during a storm and prevent another massive flood in that part of the
city, Bedey says. The Industrial Canal, a bigger canal that pushed water
into the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard during Katrina, remains open. Work
on that canal won't begin until next year, he says.

"We're in a marathon and a marathon's a long race," Bedey notes. "There's
nothing pretty about being in a marathon, whether you're watching it or
running it."

In April, a panel with the American Society of Civil Engineers praised the
work the corps had so far done in strengthening levees and putting up
stronger flood walls. But it also warned the agency not to "sugarcoat"
existing dangers.

The risk "to citizens in the New Orleans area with the current hurricane
protection system is much higher than would be accepted for many other
engineered life-protection systems," the society said.

Until the Lake Borgne barrier and another floodgate at the Industrical Canal
are completed, areas remain exposed to storm surges, says Mark Davis,
director of Tulane University's Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy.

"The real question is the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish," he says.
"It's not just one community. It's the entire eastern side of New Orleans."

The lack of immediate protection has homeowners worried, some of whom only
recently returned to rebuild their homes, says Pam Dashiell, past president
of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, a historic neighborhood just
south of the Lower 9th Ward.

"It's very disconcerting," Dashiell says. "It has a lot of folks here

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