Funds sought for levees

Bush administration seeks $1.5 billion more to help New Orleans rebuild


WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, promising to build stronger levees in New Orleans, announced yesterday that it will seek $1.5 billion more from Congress to help the city rebuild its flood defenses.

"The levee system will be better and safer than it's ever been before," said Donald Powell, the federal official overseeing Gulf Coast reconstruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

While promising to have adequate levees in place for next year's hurricane season, federal officials were unable to guarantee that the levees to be completed around New Orleans two years from now will be able to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.

Katrina made landfall as a Category 4 storm Aug. 29, flooding New Orleans and killing more than 1,300 people along the coast.

Engineering experts say the federal funding envisioned for levees falls far short of what is needed to protect New Orleans, situated below sea level, from the worst possible storm.

Rebuilding the city's levees to withstand a Category 5 storm could cost more than $30 billion -- 10 times the $3.1 billion that the White House mentioned yesterday, with $1.6 billion already committed and President Bush seeking another $1.5 billion.

"I don't think we can design a system that can compete with Mother Nature," Powell said at a White House briefing.

"What we're saying is that we are going to do whatever is necessary to make sure we have stronger and better levee systems than we've ever had," he said. "The federal government is committed to building the best levee system known in the world."

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, meeting with officials at the White House and on Capitol Hill yesterday, suggested Katrina has become "the new standard" against which New Orleans measures its hurricane defenses. However, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and business leaders have maintained that New Orleans must gird for a Category 5 hurricane if it is to provide the assurances needed for redevelopment.

Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said the funding for levees that Bush is seeking falls well short of what will be needed.

"Everything we know says if we abandon the patchwork-quilt approach to flood protection that we've used up to now, it's going to cost much more than that," said Bea, who served on a National Science Foundation task force that investigated the New Orleans levee failures.

The funding Bush is seeking "is probably sufficient to get close to completion of the Category 3 protection that we had hoped was in place prior to Katrina but which turned out not to be the case," Bea said yesterday. "But the complete rehabilitation of the system is probably more than $30 billion to provide adequate protection" against Category 5 storms.

Nagin maintains that the new levees will become part of "the holy trinity of recovery" in New Orleans. That triumvirate includes new housing and economic incentives for redevelopment of the city. "These levees will be as high as 17 feet in some areas," Nagin said at the White House. "We've never had that. ... These levees will be fortified with rock and concrete. These levees will have a pumping system like we've only dreamed of."

Encouraging more displaced residents to return to New Orleans, Nagin acknowledged that the hardest-hit parts of the city, including the Ninth Ward, are not ready for revival.

Of the 450,000 residents of New Orleans who were displaced by Katrina, only about 100,000 have returned to the city.

By the start of next year's hurricane season, which officially begins in June, New Orleans will have an improved version of the levees that were supposed to be in place before Katrina, according to Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, head of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The complete building of bigger, armor-fortified levees will take longer. "Two years is what we are looking at," Strock said.

Mark Silva and Michael Oneal write for the Chicago Tribune.

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