July 1, 2006

New Orleanians Fear Summer Storms May Flood City

By Peter Henderson

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Never mind the hurricanes, it is rain New Orleans has to fear, say residents who fear inadequate repairs from Hurricane Katrina have opened the city to major flooding from less severe summer storms.

As floods swept the U.S. East Coast this week, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter joined the New Orleans citizen chorus by sending a letter to President George W. Bush, saying the city could face renewed destruction because pumps built to keep it dry were in disrepair.

New Orleans has had some minor rains recently after a long drought, and with hurricane season revving up, residents say their homes and futures are at risk. "There are no more floods left in us," said Lisa Ludwig, who lives in the Broadmoor neighborhood west of the French Quarter.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is rebuilding city defenses, says it is focusing on the main threat.

"We have to prevent catastrophic flooding," said Col. Richard Wagenaar, commander of the Corps in New Orleans, adding that new defenses would do that. Rainwater flooding would not drown the city, he argued.

"It is just a function of pumping that out over ... time, basically hours, potentially even a day if it is too much water," he said. "That is not a catastrophic loss."

"It's rainwater flooding. It's not catastrophic," Mayor Ray Nagin agreed recently.

New Orleans is largely below sea level and stays dry during storms by pumping water out of the lowest areas into canals built high enough to drain into Lake Pontchartrain.


But during Katrina, storm water rushed up the canals, sending water into the city the way it is supposed to come out. Storm water then broke through the canal walls, flooding 80 percent of the city. More than 1,500 from Louisiana died in the storm.

As it rebuilt defenses, the Corps focused on the canal failures and decided to erect flood gates where they empty into the lake. That would allow the bowl of New Orleans to close off the hole used by the storm surge last year.

"If we close the gates, there is no threat from failure of the (canal) walls, which would be catastrophic -- it would allow feet of water in the city for extended periods of time -- weeks," said Wagenaar.

But if the canals are closed, rainwater must be pumped around the gates. New pumps installed to do that are relatively small, and in addition, many of the main pumps designed to drain the city were flooded by Katrina and in need of repair.

"These failures threaten to allow major flooding of Southeast Louisiana this hurricane season, which would kill our recovery," Sen. Vitter wrote to Bush. He envisioned closing the flood gates in a storm, only to be submerged by rainwater collecting in the city.

"The result could be the end of New Orleans as a major American city," he concluded.

Flood maps released by the Corps on Friday night show hundreds of blocks could be flooded if a tropical storm hits and flood gates used to seal off the city are closed.

But residents predict trouble from lesser storms, too.

"We're concerned with the far more common occurrence of heavy rain," said Matt McBride, a mechanical engineer who has led the Broadmoor neighborhood group.

"They are actually designing a system to flood rather than to drain," he said of the engineers.