Levee repairs start to take hold

Breaches may be closed by today, engineers say

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NEW ORLEANS - After several false starts, the Army Corps of Engineers said, their levee repair efforts are taking hold.

If there is no more rain, the breaches in New Orleans' all-important levees could be closed by today, said engineer Don Basham, chief of the engineering division, from headquarters in Washington.

Pumping the water out of the city is another matter.

The corps predicts that it will take days before workers can turn on the pumping system that moves overflow water through the city's canals back and forth to Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

New Orleans' complex canal system failed in the wake of Category 4 Hurricane Katrina, when rising waters in the lake ripped holes in vital retaining walls. Lake water swamped the city, which is below sea level, and swallowed houses up to their rooftops.

While it will likely be months before the city is dry again, Army Corps officials said helicopter sandbag drops at the 17th Street Canal are one of several steps being taken by soldiers, contractors and volunteers to fix the problem.

On one end of the canal, adjacent to the lake, workers are using a pile driver to erect a wall more than 100 feet long to stem the flow of water. The sandbag drop is shoring up the damaged levee, a sloping piece of land built from dirt, concrete and steel that's drowning in lake water. Still other areas are being filled with sand and gravel.

"We're using a variety of materials, adapting the engineering to what we can find," said Walter Baumy, Army Corps chief of engineering for the New Orleans District.

They have trucked in gravel, sand and even ground-up road pavement from the storm's debris.

At the London Avenue Canal, the other major breach in the city's water control system, the corps is walling off the lake with steel piling and filling in the nearby breach with gravel and sand. Corps officials said they are planning to close both major breaches by today.

Once the holes in the levees are repaired, the city's repaired pump system, plus portable pumps, must drain the city. That will likely take weeks.

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