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Progress on New Orleans Levees Painstakingly Slow

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Army Corps of Engineers has been repairing the damaged levees around New Orleans for the last three weeks. About 15 percent of the city remains under water. But the Army Corps says the levee system is nowhere near its original strength. With Hurricane Rita headed toward the Gulf, officials say New Orleans is not ready to weather another storm. NPR's Jennifer Ludden visited one of the main levees today.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

Along the 17th Street Canal levee, a yellow excavator piles up gravel, trying to fill in a 40-foot gully.

(Soundbite of gravel being dumped)

LUDDEN: This is where Hurricane Katrina ripped out some 460 feet of concrete wall, sending surges of water into the Lakeview neighborhood. Behind the excavator is a dusty wasteland of upended trees, muddy pools of water and disheveled clapboard and brick houses. All that's left of one home is a concrete slab.

(Soundbite of machinery operation)

LUDDEN: Kuser Hanno(ph) is with Boh Bros., a local firm rebuilding these levees.

Mr. KUSER HANNO (Boh Bros.): No, this wouldn't hold another hurricane.

LUDDEN: Working 'round the clock these last three weeks, Boh Bros. and the US Army Corps of Engineers has shored up this breach and others with dirt, gravel and enormous 7,000-pound sandbags. But none of that is fully waterproof. In fact, at another levee you can see water still flowing into wrecked homes. If Hurricane Rita were to turn this way, the Army Corps of Engineers has another plan. David Wirtzel(ph) is a structural engineer with the Army Corps, and he's overseeing the work at the 17th Street levee.

Mr. DAVID WIRTZEL (Structural Engineer, Army Corps of Engineers): What happens when Rita comes or any storm like Rita is we have what we call a sheet pile at the bridge. And we basically just shut down this part of the canal from having any of the storm surge enter into this area.

LUDDEN: And sheet pile is?

Mr. WIRTZEL: Sheet pile is basically like a corrugated steel. It's--because of the corrugation, it's a very strong structural element as a wall material.

LUDDEN: So you'll close off the canal?

Mr. WIRTZEL: We'll close off the canal.

LUDDEN: But that's a stopgap measure. It also wouldn't prevent all flooding. And cleaning up another mess will take longer than in pre-Katrina days.

Army Corps spokeswoman Susan Jackson walks along the Mississippi River levee outside the corps headquarters here. She says the city's pumping stations were also heavily damaged in Katrina and are only operating at 50 percent capacity now.

Ms. SUSAN JACKSON (Spokeswoman, Army Corps of Engineers): And then you have your drainage system. Is it collapsed? Is it still operable out there? Then you have your debris issue also that they're impacted by. So, I mean, electrical problems, just you name it--Murphy's law--I have a feeling that we'll be working this probably for, you know, six more months at minimum.

LUDDEN: In other words, the Army Corps of Engineers says it should have New Orleans' pumps and levees back to pre-Katrina standard by next year's hurricane season. But, of course, as everyone here now knows, that standard isn't good enough. Jackson says the current levee system is only built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane; Katrina was a 4. The technology exists to make the levees stronger. What's still not clear is whether there will be the political will and a budget to back it up. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, New Orleans.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): NPR science editor David Malakoff writes about the state of New Orleans' flood-wall system at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.