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Costly New Orleans Levee Repairs May Be Inadequate

June 12, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

SINGER: Baby, don’t you want to go…

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: J.D. Hill is no longer singing the Katrina blues.

J.D. HILL, Musician (singing): … back to that same, old place, my big, bad, brand-new blue house…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: After months of temporary housing, he’s now a homeowner for the first time in his life.

J.D. HILL: Here in New Orleans, to have your own house, that means you’re the king of the castle. I look around here in these nice rooms, my very first house, and three-bedroom house, and it just aches me in my heart.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Hill is a New Orleans displaced musician who recently got a new house built by volunteers from Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that builds affordable housing.

When construction is complete on Musicians Village, there will be 81 private homes built in the city’s Upper Ninth Ward, which remains mostly abandoned today.

Last year, floodwater from levee breaches just blocks away devastated the whole east side of New Orleans. Now, in the first month of a new hurricane season, the Army Corps of Engineers that built the levees has almost completed $800 million in repairs.

Working seven days a week, 24 hours a day, the corps has built a massive new concrete wall along the canal that separates the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards. At two other sites where the levees failed, big floodgates are being installed. Corps officials recently surveyed the work.

MAJ. GEN. RONALD JOHNSON, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: I can tell you that we have met our objective to repair the damage to the 169 miles of the 350-mile system, hurricane protection system, which includes the levees and the floodwalls.

I think New Orleans can be confident in its hurricane protection system because it is better and it is stronger.

Learning from mistakes?


BETTY ANN BOWSER: But in the same week the Corps took credit for the repairs, its commander, Lieutenant General Carl Strock, also admitted some mistakes were made when the levees were built.

LT. GEN. CARL STROCK, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: We do take accountability. And in this case, it's been sobering for us, but really this was the first time that the Corps of Engineers has had to stand up and say: We had a catastrophic failure of one of our projects.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Strock made those remarks on the day a $20 million investigation commissioned by the Defense Department was released. In a 6,000-page report, investigators said the levees and floodwalls were a "system in name only," incomplete, inconsistent with design performance flaws.

LT. GEN. CARL STROCK: Elements of the system did not perform as designed or as intended, and so we missed something in our design that we need to -- that we do now understand and are incorporating in future work.

RAYMOND SEED, University of California, Berkeley: As that water pressure came racing through there...

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A second independent investigation, funded by the National Science Foundation, which also underwrites the NewsHour's Science Unit, went further. It accused the Corps of taking short cuts to save money. The investigation was headed by Ray Seed.

RAYMOND SEED: The levee system failed in large part because of embedded deficiencies and because safety and reliability were put at risk, they were traded for economic efficiencies.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ivor Van Heerden headed yet another independent investigation, paid for by the state. He is deputy director of the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University. He has also written a book about Katrina.

Van Heerden says, even though the repairs are almost complete, the Corps has not made New Orleans any safer.

IVOR VAN HEERDEN, LSU Hurricane Center: They're back where they were. You know, where it failed, they've done fairly robust repairs. But there are many areas where it almost failed; there are many areas where the levees are in a very compromised position.

So we have no better protection now than we did before Katrina. We are still super-susceptible to storm surges, and we could get that storm that floods everything once again.

Lost trust


SANDY ROSENTHAL, Founder, Can I ask you a question about the floodgate?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That's what Sandy Rosenthal worries about. After Katrina, she started a citizen's watchdog group called that now has about 4,000 members. She recently toured repairs at the 17th Street Canal.

SANDY ROSENTHAL: We wake up every morning and we remember that this shouldn't have happened. We remember it happened because of people, not because of Katrina, because the Corps of Engineers was a dysfunctional organization that shouldn't have been trusted.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Contractor Melvin Carroll lived in the Lower Ninth Ward. And although the levee repairs are almost done, he doesn't believe they'll protect him.

MELVIN CARROLL, Contractor: If you've got all this knowledge and college education and everything, you're supposed to know what you're doing, and you messed up the first time, how am I going to trust you again?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Corps officials have acknowledged they have a trust problem with some people, but they also say they want to work with residents to regain it.

LT. GEN. CARL STROCK: Because of the failures in the hurricane protection system, some question the capability of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. For those who doubt us, words alone will not restore trust in the Corps of Engineers. We are mindful that the public's trust is gained when we follow through on our actions.

Dangerously moving on


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mary Cardinale and her family trusted the Corps enough to completely rebuild their Lakeview home. They moved back two weeks ago. But in these post-Katrina days, Cardinale is more practical.

MARY CARDINALE, Louisiana Resident: You pick up; you move on; you make a decision, what you're going to do about it; and you act on it.

I feel safe because I feel like we know what to do. If a hurricane is coming, we evacuate. We know the real preparations. Forget the D batteries and the bottled water, you know? It's more like an axe and a boat tied to your house.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Raymond Hunter also has decided to move on. In an abandoned area of the Lower Ninth Ward, the Pentecostal minister is rebuilding three houses near his church. He hopes to provide rental homes that will bring families back.

RAYMOND HUNTER, Louisiana Resident: Somewhere along the line, you have to say, "Well, look, this is where I'm from, this is what I need to do," and just do it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And he's not worried about another hurricane.

RAYMOND HUNTER: That's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, or once-in-two-lifetimes, that something like this would happen. So I don't really think that we're going to, per se, have another Katrina. We may have a tropical storm; we may have a Category 1 or 2. But I don't see another 4 or 5.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Scientist Van Heerden says that attitude is very prevalent in New Orleans and is dangerous.

IVOR VAN HEERDEN: My fear is everybody is kind of got this Katrina fatigue and thinking, "Well, it happened to us. It isn't going to happen again." But we have to recognize we get a major hurricane in coastal Louisiana once every seven years. This is going to be an active season. We may actually this year get that 3 that passes west of the city or, heaven forbid, a 4 or 5.

A price on safety


BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Army Corps of Engineers has promised to do a better job in New Orleans. Its leader says, in the future, when congressional funders want the Corps to compromise on engineering to save money, there will be a new response.

LT. GEN. CARL STROCK: At the end of the day, we have accumulated a level of risk and I don't think we truly understood that. So I think what you'll see is that, before we defer to others on elements that involve engineering decisionmaking and our ethical responsibilities to ensure what we build is going to serve its purpose, I think you'll see a greater propensity on the part of the Corps of Engineers to stand up and say, "No."

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Corps currently has more than a billion dollars approved by Congress to shore up levees and floodwalls that were not damaged by Katrina, and it has asked Congress for another $3.7 billion to improve the entire 350 miles of hurricane protection around New Orleans.