Grim residents watch levees give way again to floodwater

New Orleans

Texas-LA. Border Hit

Hurricane Rita

September 24, 2005|By Robert Little | Robert Little,Sun reporter

NEW ORLEANS -- Just as this empty city seemed to be awakening from its nightmare, the familiar image of rescue helicopters buzzing over flooded rooftops returned yesterday to neighborhoods where street sweepers and utility crews had been only days before.

Surging tides from Hurricane Rita, rising several feet higher than engineers had predicted, jumped the patchwork levee system on the city's east side to swallow streets and houses that had just emerged from three weeks beneath the floodwater of Hurricane Katrina.

Gloomy residents, frustrated with the slow pace of the city's recovery, could only watch and be thankful that Rita did not reprise Katrina's deadliness. Rescue workers did not report any encounters with distressed residents, thanks to earlier evacuations and Army checkpoints that have kept people from returning to the city's low-lying neighborhoods.

"It's sad, because you'd think the government could have prevented something like this," said Jeffrey Holmes, 40, who was trying to monitor the rising waters from his home a few blocks west of the latest flooding.

"We've been waiting for things to return to normal, and now it's like they're headed back the way they were," said Robert Zas, who also lives within blocks of the flooded area.

Most of the flooding was limited to an impoverished section of the city called the Lower Ninth Ward, which suffered some of the worst of Katrina's destruction. But rising waters also reclaimed parts of the Bywater and Gentilly neighborhoods adjacent to the main business district. In St. Bernard Parish to the east, a rural area that was among the worst-hit of New Orleans' suburbs, officials said they will need at least two weeks to pump out the latest influx of floodwater.

The main source of flooding was a waterway called the Industrial Canal, which flows between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain and separates the Lower Ninth Ward from the rest of New Orleans. Breaches in the canal were patched temporarily with rock and sand after Hurricane Katrina, but unlike other canals through the city it was not dammed up to keep rising water away from the temporary patches.

Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blamed yesterday's flooding not on a new breach but on Rita's storm surge "over-topping" the repairs, which were designed to handle only about 7 feet of rising water.

But from a bridge overlooking the canal, onlookers could see the repairs crumbling as water flowed through them, swallowing cars and houses in its path.

A smaller flow of water was streaming from the repaired London Avenue Canal in the city's center, flooding surrounding houses in Gentilly with up to a foot of water. The flow could not be stopped because of the rain and wind, engineers said, but they did not consider the leak to be as serious as the flooding to the east.

Officials said they were not shocked by the latest flooding, and were pleased that the city's other canals were largely holding water out of the central sections.

"Although it's very dramatic to watch, this is not an emergency situation," said Stephen Browning, director of programs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as he watched the floodwaters from a bridge over the Industrial Canal. "The key levees are still holding up well, and there's no danger to this area because it's already been evacuated."

But to residents in the levee's shadows, their only comfort was the reminder that they had already endured far more destruction. "It can't rise anymore than it already did, and it can't ruin anything that wasn't ruined last time," said Lisa Zalewski, 37, of the Bywater area.

Days after business owners and residents began trickling back into the vacant city, New Orleans again resembled an empty militarized zone yesterday as soldiers from the National Guard and the 82nd Airborne Division patrolled neighborhoods.

Browning said the latest floodwaters would likely take at least a week to pump out, and scattered flooding from rainwater throughout the city could also put a strain on New Orleans' municipal pumping stations, which have not been restored to full capacity.

For the same reasons that officials seemed unconcerned about the new flooding -- its worst effects were in the city's most storm-ravaged and economically depressed area -- nearby residents were questioning the government's commitment to keeping the entire city safe yesterday. The canals that received the most repair work, and which held up the best yesterday, sliced through some of the more affluent areas.

The Lower Ninth Ward is among the poorest communities in the city. The area has long suffered from poor drainage, and in the past three weeks its protective levees have proven to be less secure than others in the city.

"The developers and real estate speculators have been chomping at the bit to buy up this land around here, and this just makes it easier for them," said Holmes, trying to repair water damage to his first-floor art gallery.

"The only people they want back are the rich, white people," said Zas, who sat on his front steps and watched the driving rain from Rita's outer bands.

"I think the worst thing you could call it is a kind of ethnic cleansing," said Francisco diSantis, who rode his bike up the canal bridge to watch the flooding. "It feels like the government isn't too eager to get the poor people to come back."

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