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Draining could take months

General says at least 80 days needed to drain parts of New Orleans

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New Orleans (Louisiana)

It will take nearly three months to drain some parts of New Orleans, a U.S. Army general said Friday.

Gen. Robert Crear, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, estimated Friday that some flooded neighborhoods will be pumped dry in 36 days but that it will be at least 80 days before the last section of the city is dry.

About 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded after its levee system, which was designed for a Category 3 hurricane, failed. Katrina was a Category 4 storm when it struck early Monday morning. (See video of why the levee's breech was devastating -- 1:53)

Water has been stopped from flowing into St. Bernard Parish, one of the hardest-hit portions of the city's east side, Crear said.

He said the Corps was using a newly created road at one levee to dump stones into the gap. (Watch the video report on choppers starting levee repairs -- 5:26)

But at the levee near the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans, workers were leaving the breach open so water could drain back into Lake Pontchartrain.

Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, said earlier Friday that his personnel would work to create breaches in other levees along the huge lake, where the water level had dropped below that in much of the city.

"We don't expect a rise in the levels," he said. "There is some fluctuation based on a tidal influence from Lake Pontchartrain but, essentially, the flooding has stabilized."

Crear said restarting the pumps that drain the city would be a priority.

Getting the pumps are back in operation, Crear said , "will allow us to dewater Orleans Parish," which includes downtown New Orleans.

The future of the levees

The intensity of the storm was just too much for the levees to handle, Strock said.

They broke at their "final design configuration, so that was as good as it was going to get," he said.

The Corps is studying enhancements that would deal with Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, which had been considered only a remote possibility, he said.

"I think the bottom line message here is that we and the local officials knew the capacity of this levee system to handle this storm," he said. "And that is exactly why the mayor and the governor ordered the evacuation of New Orleans, because they knew that if a Category 4 or 5 hurricane were to strike New Orleans, that this levee system could not be relied upon."

Other issues

  • Strock stressed that one of the unit's jobs is to find temporary housing for evacuees, and he said "specific planning for New Orleans began before landfall." He said one idea was to create a city of 50,000 "on a green space" where "none exists now."
  • The budget for the Corps has not suffered because of the war in Iraq, Strock said. "The reason I say that is, if you look at the funding levels of the Corps from prewar days of 2001 and 2002, it has been a fairly steady level. We are spending a lot of money, and the Corps of Engineers is involved in the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. But we're able to balance that with our human resources. And it is not directly affecting our budget."
  • Strock noted that "one of the biggest problems" is communication. He differentiated between military and civilian communications, noting that military communications are fine but civilians couldn't communicate well because cell towers were knocked out.
  • Food drops, Strock said, were "feasible. But what you have to do is know where to drop it and what to drop. That's a challenge."
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