New Orleans Mayor Seeks Levees to Withstand Category 5 Storms

WASHINGTON, DC, November 7, 2005 (ENS) - Nine weeks after the Category 4 hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, billions of gallons of water have been drained, the city has been reopened to residents, and some businesses are returning. Mayor Ray Nagin was in Washington last week seeking federal funds to rebuild the city's levees strong enough to protect against storms with even higher winds and a greater storm surge than Katrina brought.

Mayor Nagin told the U.S. Senateís Environment and Public Works Committee on November 2 that the city is at a critical point when businesses and residents are making life-altering decisions about whether to stay in the area.

"Eighty percent of our electrical services have been restored in our targeted areas. Sixty percent of our gas services have been restored. Water and sewer has been restored in these targeted areas. Schools are reopening. The private sector is ready to invest in New Orleans," he said.

But, Mayor Nagin said, "They need some comfort and some confidence that the federal government is going to provide us the assistance necessary to fix our levee systems Ö so that we can move forward and be confident."


New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin addresses a news conference three weeks after Hurricane Katrina to explain plans for evacuation ahead of Hurricane Rita. September 21, 2005. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino courtesy FEMA)
Katrina was the most powerful Category 4 hurricane ever to hit the region, but Mayor Nagin says rebuilding to protect against a Category 4 hurricane is not good enough. He is seeking federal funding to build flood control measures to protect against a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest category on the Saffir-Simpson Scale.

"The Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers has assured me that flood defenses for New Orleans will be restored by June of 2006 to the level where they were when the hurricane struck and overpowered them," Nagin told the committee members. "The Corps Commander also acknowledged that this would provide little comfort in a city devastated by the storm and whose flood protection is not as strong as it should be," he said.

The Corps currently has no legal authority to rebuild the cityís flood protection from hurricanes stronger than a Category 3 storm. "But more is needed," said the mayor. "Now is the time for our country to make a commitment to the Category 5 levees that will enable us to bring New Orleans back."

Nagin asked for stronger, higher levees not just for New Orleans residents, but because "New Orleans is an economic hub for the entire nation and is of great strategic importance."

Four of the largest ports in the nation are in this area, the mayor explained, and half of the grain exported from the United States goes through New Orleans. The area contains a vast infrastructure for oil and gas exploration and production, petrochemicals, refineries and pipelines that serve much of the country, and its fishery resources are among the largest in the country.


Hurricane Katrina caused this breach in the levee wall lining the 17th Street Canal between Jefferson and Orleans Parishes. Water entering through this and other breaches flooded 80 percent of the city. The white sandbags were dropped by helicopter in an attempt to close the breach. September 4, 2005. (Photo courtesy USACE)
"The nation cannot afford not to rebuild New Orleans and federal money must help the city to rebuild the right way this time," Mayor Nagin said, adding that levees and floodwalls alone will not solve the problem.

"Drainage is an essential part of the flood control equation," said the mayor, calling for expedited completion of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Control Project (SELA).

Authorized by Congress as a result of the extensive flooding of these parishes by heavy rains in May 1995, the project provides for engineering, design, and construction of projects for flood control and improvements to rainfall drainage systems in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany Parishes.

The project includes channel and pump station improvements in the three parishes, providing flood protection for a 10 year rainfall event, while reducing damages for larger events. The currently scheduled work in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes is about 70 percent complete and should be finished in 2008, if funding can keep pace, according to a Corps report from March 2005, before the damages of Hurricane Katrina.

In addition to levees and drainage upgrades, Mayor Nagin asked for federal funding to renovate or replace the New Orleans water and sanitation system infrastructure which was badly damaged by Katrina.

And even more needs to be done, the mayor said. "A comprehensive plan to protect our city and the nationís investment in our region includes rebuilding the marshlands of southeast Louisiana. Wetlands act as a natural buffer between this part of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico, reducing potential flooding and protecting southeast Louisiana from devastating storm surge. Two miles of rebuilt marshland will reduce surge up to two feet."

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed 100 square miles of marshlands in southeastern Louisiana, according to an analysis of Landsat satellite data from September and October by scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey.

To help encourage the return of businesses and workers, Mayor Nagin asked the committee to support a 50 percent credit on taxable wages for workers and businesses for the next seven years or until the cityís population returns to pre-Katrina levels.

Most of the 450,000 residents of the city who left before or after the storm struck on August 29 have not returned, and many are living outside Louisiana. Approximately 700 city residents died during the hurricane and its aftermath.


Black mold lines the walls of a damaged house in New Orleans. Many houses are being condemed due to this mold, because human exposure to it can be fatal. (Photo by Patsy Lynch courtesy FEMA)
"The damage to homes, schools, businesses, hospitals, roads, water plants, communication facilities, and electrical power infrastructure was unprecedented and the economic and social fabric of the area was damaged in its entirety," Mayor Nagin said. "Homes that did survive were inundated with contaminated and oil laced water. Some of these homes and businesses are ruined forever. Some of our hospitals may have to be torn down."

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said November 2 that to encourage the return of businesses and residents to the state, rebuilding and reconstruction efforts must be an improvement over what was lost.

"We cannot simply re-create what those storms destroyed," the governor said. "We must make the new Louisiana smarter, safer and stronger."

On September 15, President George W. Bush outlined three initiatives to help rebuild areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina - a Gulf opportunity zone to encourage business investment; worker recovery accounts to help displaced evacuees fund job training, education, and child care; and an Urban Homesteading Act that would allow lower-income citizens to build new homes on federal property.

Bush said the recovery would be "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen," and he pledged to "do what it takes" to help Americans rebuild their communities and lives.

On November 1 Bush appointed Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Chairman Donald Powell as coordinator of federal support for the recovery and rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region.


Since 2001, Donald Powell has been chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insures deposits at the nation's 8,868 banks and savings associations. (Photo by James Kegley courtesy FDIC)
As soon as he wraps up his work, Powell will leave the FDIC to serve as the primary contact point between the Bush administration and state and local governments, the private sector, and community leaders.

Mayor Nagin told the committee members that he was "extremely encouraged" after meeting with Powell. "He's a man of accomplishments. He's a man of significant integrity. And we look forward to working with him, and we both pledged to do whatever it takes for us to try and rebuild this great city."

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina has aroused international attention. As part of their current U.S. tour, Britainís Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, visited New Orleans on Saturday.

His Royal Highness donated to the rebuilding effort in Mississippi the $30,000 in prize money from the Vincent Scully Prize he received last week for his contribution to the debate on architecture and urban planning at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC.

Accepting the award, Prince Charles said that The Princeís Foundation for the Built Environment is involved in the state's redesign process. "My wife and I were utterly horrified to see the terrible scenes of destruction wrought by the hurricane across New Orleans and the surrounding area," he said. "I only hope my foundation can play a small part in the work that is under way to begin the reconstruction."