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Hurricane Gustav Tests Gulf Coast Rebuilding, Preparedness

September 1, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Hurricane Gustav lashed the Gulf Coast with wind and rain Monday. Experts examine the region's preparedness for the storm, three years after Hurricane Katrina.

JIM LEHRER: Now, more on how prepared was the Gulf Coast for a major storm three years after Katrina. Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: And for that, we turn to Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland; and Major General Don Riley, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He’s been deeply involved in the Corps’ ongoing reconstruction of the levees and floodwalls in the gulf region.

And welcome to you both.

General Riley, Tom Bearden filed that report a short time ago. What’s the absolute latest? Are all the levees and floodwalls holding?

MAJ. GEN. DON RILEY, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: In New Orleans proper, in the city, they are holding. What we don’t know is the condition of those levees outside of New Orleans, especially down in Plaquemines Parish, and west over in Lafourche Parish, and Houma, and Morgan City.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the levees in New Orleans that are holding, despite the water overtopping them, why is that? They didn’t hold last time. Is that because these — the ones under pressure now are the ones you’ve rebuilt? Or is it simply that the storm is less intense?

MAJ. GEN. DON RILEY: The ones you saw today on the news and what they just showed, those are the ones that we replaced along the Inner Harbor Canal. And some we replaced; some we repaired.

But those that have been replaced, they have been built to be more resistant to scour. They’ve been built with very deep foundations, down to 70 feet of steel, H-pile, so they are very secure and resilient to overtopping.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us a little bit more about this, because last time with Katrina the overtopping was a precursor to erosion, which caused them to break or breach. So have you avoided that, or is that still a risk here?

MAJ. GEN. DON RILEY: Well, the risk is any overtopping, of course, would exceed the design conditions. But what we’ve done on these levees, if the water comes over the floodwall, what we’ve put on the backside is scour protection.

So you have concrete on the backside. It’s now a — not just an I-wall. It’s a T-wall, so it’s much more substantial with H-pile foundations.

MARGARET WARNER: So the erosion that occurred before, what — after the water came over, then it would sort of come under and that’s what you mean by scour?

MAJ. GEN. DON RILEY: That’s correct. Because once it goes over, it picks up about four times the speed once it begins to scour and erode on the backside. So we built the levees to be more resistant to scour.

Lessons learned after Katrina

Michael Greenberger
University of Maryland
In this evacuation, it appears that all the resources of the city and the state were used to get people who couldn't drive themselves out of the city out of the city.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Michael Greenberger, we look at this massive evacuation which has taken place. How much of that would you say is due to a different response by the different layers of government, levels of government, and the different agencies?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER, University of Maryland: Well, there's no action of preserving the public safety that requires more coordination than evacuation of a city under threat of a hurricane.

And that evacuation could not take place with just the city, just the state, or just the federal government. In fact, the private sector plays a very big role, too.

The resources of all these institutions are brought to bear to get 2 million people out of the Gulf Coast. And it seems, from the early reports, that they were successful in doing that.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this is the same mayor, Ray Nagin, who was mayor last time. Would you say he took a very different approach to this?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: Well, Mayor Nagin last time tried his best to get people to leave the city, but the effort wasn't as outspoken. And I think people learned lessons from Katrina, that it wasn't wise to stay behind.

But even more important, I think people were reassured. It's one thing for people to decide to leave, but do they have the ability to leave? And in this evacuation, it appears that all the resources of the city and the state were used to get people who couldn't drive themselves out of the city out of the city.

And, moreover, that picture of -- it may have been bumper-to-bumper traffic, but that traffic was moving. And I think that's quite an accomplishment. After Katrina and Rita, people thought it was intractable, evacuating a big city through interstates, and they did it seemingly in this effort.

MARGARET WARNER: And then what lessons do you think the federal government has taken from Katrina? How different is the response, and in what way?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: Well, it seems that the federal government has its act together now in a way it did not have three years ago. It may be just appearances, but this afternoon there was a press conference from the Baton Rouge operations center where this emergency is being managed by the federal government in Louisiana.

And you had top officials from various agencies getting up and speaking, Department of Energy, FEMA, DHS. Three years ago, it was GS-15s, career, lower-level people who were handling this. And a lot of people who should have been there didn't come back from their vacation.

So this is a major improvement. And I think we're seeing that appearance play out in the way the services are working for the people of the Gulf Coast.

Levee repairs, fortifications

Maj. Gen. Don Riley
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
We've done a substantial amount of work to be able to withstand storms like we saw today, but still [New Orleans' levees are] very vulnerable to larger storms.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, General Riley, when you look at -- I mean, we know this storm was a Category 2. And it also, I understand, did not approach -- it was not the kind of direct hit that Katrina leveled at the city, but kind of glanced off to the west.

But what does the response of this system that you've been fortifying all of these years tell you about New Orleans' ability to withstand a Katrina-level storm? How far away are you from that?

MAJ. GEN. DON RILEY: To withstand a Katrina-level storm would take an enormous effort. The system we are now building to withstand the 1 percent-chance storm -- Katrina was about a 400-year storm. This design we're constructing now is about a 100-year storm.

So it will be very substantial, greater than anything they've ever had, but there will still be people at risk. So a large storm like Katrina would still cause major overtopping and flooding. But, again, we're convinced and confident that it would be resistant to any failure due to overtopping.

MARGARET WARNER: But you're only about, what, one-third of the way done on this levee, and floodwall, and pumping rebuilding operation?

MAJ. GEN. DON RILEY: Right, that's correct. What we've done is repair all the damaged areas, and enhanced and reinforced areas that may have been weak, and enhanced other areas. So we've done a substantial amount of work to be able to withstand storms like we saw today, but still they're very vulnerable to larger storms.

MARGARET WARNER: And are you on track to complete this by 2011? And if so, why does it take that long?

MAJ. GEN. DON RILEY: We are on track to complete it by 2011. Of course, this hurricane -- we'll have to assess how much this will set us back.

But it takes long because of the initial work we did in construction and repair, and then the design work, which requires an enormous amount of subsurface investigation, as well, and then environmental work and design, and then construction.

We're moving half the soil that was moved to build the Panama Canal. So this is an enormous effort. We still need 100 million cubic yards of clay to complete the work.

Levees elsewhere in jeopardy

Michael Greenberger
University of Maryland
Even if we come out of this successfully, we shouldn't take a false sense of confidence. We're having severe weather storms and weather patterns all over the country. Levees are in jeopardy all over the country.

MARGARET WARNER: As you look ahead, what troubles you potentially?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: Well, I don't think we're -- we're very early in this game. As Tom Bearden said, comparable time to Katrina, the levees hadn't broken, so I don't think we can be patting ourselves on the back and doing a victory dance.

We've got a lot to go through here. We've Hurricane Hanna bearing down on the Southeast.

And I don't think, even if we come out of this successfully, we shouldn't take a false sense of confidence. We're having severe weather storms and weather patterns all over the country. Levees are in jeopardy all over the country.

We have to put our full commitment at the cities, the states, the federal government, and the private sector to getting this country prepared to deal with the catastrophes it may face.

MARGARET WARNER: And are you saying that there's been more attention and more money put into the levees in New Orleans than elsewhere in the country?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: I think that's right. If you talk to any governor, they will tell you there are levees in their state that they're very worried about, their bridges, tunnels, dams.

The infrastructure of this country is not in good shape. And we need to put our resources behind it. We have the problem -- the squeaky wheel was the Gulf Coast, but we've got that problem everywhere.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Michael Greenberger and General Don Riley, thank you both.

MAJ. GEN. DON RILEY: Thank you, Margaret.