Katrina Devastation Apparent As Toll Rises
Chris Graythen  /  Getty Images
The flooding has turned New Orleans' Canal Street into a canal.
By Mike Stuckey Senior news editor
updated 8/31/2005 6:54:25 PM ET 2005-08-31T22:54:25

Federal engineers said Wednesday that water from Lake Pontchartrain has stopped pouring into New Orleans over hurricane-damaged levees but acknowledged nothing has been done so far to fill the mammoth breaches.

And, while insisting they are not acting in desperation, they announced plans to intentionally breach other levees in the city to drain some of the floodwaters.

In an afternoon conference call, a half-dozen officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provided the first official damage assessments and repair plans since the levees ruptured under the massive storm surge from Katrina.

“At this point in time, we believe that the flow into the city is not happening,” said Walter Baumy Jr., the Corps’ chief engineer for the New Orleans district. Observations earlier Wednesday found Pontchartrain to be about 3.2 feet above sea level and receding toward its normal 1.5 feet above sea level, Baumy said, equalizing pressure between the lake and the flooded tracts of the city, much of which lies below sea level.

That marked a great improvement over the previous 24 hours when the lake crested some feet higher and dumped millions of gallons over the 25-year-old levee at 17th Street and other flood walls, inundating dozens of neighborhoods after residents thought they had escaped the worst of Katrina’s fury.

But Baumy and his colleagues acknowledged, despite media reports to the contrary, that not a single shovel of sand or other fill material had yet been dumped into the 17th Street breach.

Greg Breerwood, a Corps deputy district engineer from New Orleans, said officials were hoping repair work would begin later Wednesday with Army Chinook helicopters dropping 15,000-pound bags of sand into the 300-foot wide break in the levee. “We have a few of them on the ground now, trying to get them hooked up to the bags,” Breerwood said.

About 200 bags already had been filled with “sand, gravel, pea gravel, anything we can grab,” Baumy said. “We’ll just continue to drop bags as long as it takes.”

Helicopters provide access
Helicopters were to be used because the site can’t be reached by land or barge.

“We have not done this before,” Breerwood said. “We are looking at any option available to stop this breach. Our goal is just to get as much into the breach as fast as possible.”

Ironically, as they were plotting to repair the 17th Street levee and more breaches to the east, Corp officials were saying that they’d need to intentionally rupture levees elsewhere in the New Orleans area to drain water behind them that is standing higher than lake level.

“Three obvious areas need to be breached in my opinion,” Baumy said, in Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. He said heavy equipment would be used to create 100- to 200-foot wide gaps in levees in those areas, let the water out and then restore them.

But there was no timetable on when that work would begin. “We have to get a contractor on board for that,” Baumy said, or find available military or Corps resources. “Whatever we can get there quickest.”

Another fear
Confounding repair efforts were engineers’ fears that their own efforts might worsen some aspects of the flooding, another Corps of Engineers spokesman told MSNBC.com.

“As we narrow the gap, we’re going to face greater water velocity coming in,” John Hall said. “We have to evaluate as we go. How long that takes, I don’t know. .. You must test. You must place material in there and then watch the impact.”

Mounting frustration over the inability to use conventional methods to fix the gaps have led to calls from some quarters to try bolder methods.

“Move several barges into position ahead of the breech, in parallel fashion, fill them with water and sink them in place,” said Michael W. Holcomb, a senior environmental specialist with Dallas-based refiner Alon USA. “Stabilize somehow and then begin placing concrete around the gaps, and slowly then fill in the spaces with increasingly smaller and smaller fill material and effectively seal the breach well enough to allow repairs to the levee itself.”

A similar idea was being proposed Wednesday by the Corp’s own Maj. Gen. Don Riley.

'We are not desperate'
“We are not desperate,” said Don Basham, the Corps’ chief of engineering and construction. “We are concerned.”

Once the levee system is patched, the enormous task of pumping all of the water out of New Orleans remains. Baumy expressed confidence that the city’s pumping stations, currently out of service, “can handle this situation.” But he had no estimate of how long the task could take, agreeing only that it might require “weeks.”

As to why the levees failed, Baumy said, “The system is designed for a Category 3 storm and we had a Category 5 storm.”

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