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Waiting for Hurricane Rita

September 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: And lastly to New Orleans where Rita is bringing trouble to an already devastated city. Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post is there. I talked to her late this afternoon.

Ceci, it’s still some time until Hurricane Rita is expected to make landfall. Why is part of New Orleans underwater again?

CECI CONNOLLY: Well, Ray, this was something that city officials and the Army Corps of Engineers had feared, although most of them have been telling me today, they didn’t expect the sort of surge quite as early in this storm.

Essentially, if you recall from Hurricane Katrina three and a half weeks ago, you had several levees that were breached. The Army Corps came in, did some pretty significant repairs to those. They were hoping that they would hold. Initially what happened today, you got a surge that was about seven and a half/eight feet. That came over the repaired section of that industrial canal levee.

And then we also saw that there were a couple of places where it had actually burst through. And it’s really just been incredibly heavy rain. And unfortunately, those repairs that were done, the materials were largely big rocks, and then gravel on top. And what seems to be occurring is that the gravel has been washed away by today’s really torrential rains.

RAY SUAREZ: So that rise in water level that you are talking about, that was in Lake Pontchartrain?

CECI CONNOLLY: Well, you have, it’s actually the canals that are now spilling back over these temporary breaches into the portions of the city that probably your viewers have now heard an awful lot about, the upper ninth ward, the lower ninth ward. And I spoke with a Gen. Caldwell today; he runs the 82nd Airborne Division. He tried to get into the lower ninth at about midday today with his humvees; he said there was already about three feet of water, so he turned around those humvees and he said all indications are that that flooding is going to stretch all the way back down to St. Bernard Parish again.

So you are looking at just an awful, awful repeat of what we had here with Katrina.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a part of the city that is pretty much empty and still damaged?

CECI CONNOLLY: Yes. In fact, you know, if there is one fortunate aspect to the New Orleans version of Hurricane Rita, is that there are very, very few people anywhere in this city. But certainly over on that ninth ward area, the St. Bernard Parish, communities like Chaumet, which are now back underwater, all indications are that there’s almost no living person over there. That’s certainly a great thing, and it makes dealing with Rita a tiny bit easier here for New Orleans.

But just imagine all that had been accomplished in the past week or ten days. They are really set back again, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there’s an illustration of the kind of thing that can happen. The water starts rushing in again, but a storm is on its way. What have they decided to do? Are they actively trying to shore up the levees and pump water out, or are they going to wait until Rita passes?

CECI CONNOLLY: Well, they have got a number of pumps that are continuing to operate, although not nearly the same 147 that you normally have in New Orleans.

In addition, Ray, I was out on the Florida Avenue Bridge a couple of hours ago. I encountered one of the maintenance men from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said they had spotted another smaller overflow near the New Orleans shipyard, another kind of small breach. They were hoping to get some equipment into that, probably via land although there were indications that they were failing at that this afternoon. I haven’t been back over there in the last couple of hours.

With respect to some of these bigger breaks that we’re seeing, Gen. Caldwell said to me that you’ve really got to have the helicopters come back in dropping those enormous sandbags; there’s no way that can happen in this weather. He said he has 20 helicopters over at Fort Rucker in Alabama and he is hoping to get those helicopters in maybe tomorrow afternoon. But obviously, they can’t fly in this kind of storm.

RAY SUAREZ: Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post thanks for joining us.