Five years after Katrina, New Orleans is rebuilding. The system
designed to protect against future storms is better than before, but
questions remain about whether it is fortified enough.
Normally, moving to a new house in a new neighborhood is a
transition many can feel good about. But for Randy Pratt, an
electrician, moving his family into a brick home in this city's
Lower Ninth Ward, makes him shrug at the possibility of lightning
He now lives a short walk from where a concrete barrier collapsed
on Aug. 29, 2005, allowing rushing water to destroy the neighborhood
that only recently started to rebuild. Does moving back to what many
consider the scene of the crime make him hesitate?
"I've been around levees my entire life," says Mr. Pratt. "I just
hope it's safe, that's all."
IN PICTURES: Hurricane Katrina five years later
His faith in the city's 350-mile levee system, and therefore in
the US Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency in charge of
maintaining it, is something that everyone living in this city
shares in different proportions.
There is good reason.
What was first reported as the worst natural disaster in US
history was later redefined as a breakdown in communication and
maintenance by the Corps. Volumes of material written in the wake of
Hurricane Katrina, including a report released by the agency in
2006, determined that the flooding that drowned 80 percent of this
city was due to faulty levee design, eroding materials, inconsistent
levels of resiliency in different sections, pumping stations that
were not designed to work during large storms, and other hazards
that undermined the protection most assumed was there.
"We got damaged by an engineering failure that caused the levees
to break. We couldn't control that. The federal government owns and
operates the levees," says Mayor Mitch Landrieu, interviewed in his
city hall office earlier this month.
Expecting a hurricane, not a flood
Mr. Landrieu says despite the warnings, many of the city's
residents did not evacuate because waiting out hurricanes was common
and there were little expectations of what came next. "We were
expecting a hurricane but we got a flood," he says.
Five years later, the city is rebuilding, its troubled public
school district is undergoing dramatic reforms, and entrepreneurship
is energizing neighborhoods and attracting new residents. The system
designed to protect is certainly better than what existed before the
storm, but questions remain about whether it is fortified enough.
Col. Robert Sinkler, commander of the Hurricane Protection Office
for the Corps, says the ring of the levees before Katrina operated
as "a system in name only." Its weakness, he says, was the result of
floodwall sections that were not consistent in their construction
strength or maintenance. Missteps, like the use of dredging
materials, instead of construction quality soil or clay, to build
barriers in some areas, or the integration of sections that forsook
structural resiliency for height, led to a "patchwork" of
The $15 billion allocated by Congress to streamline the system is
being used to mend areas that toppled, upgrade pumping facilities,
build new floodgates, and reconstruct walls where there was obvious
This time, tougher foundation material like a mixture of
construction clay and cement, is being used in the soil to hold
structural sections of wall designed as an inverted T instead of
their previous I-shape. …