One Month Later, New Orleans Nearly Pumped Dry

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, October 3, 2005 (ENS) - Pumps set up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been working 24/7 for weeks to remove the flood waters from New Orleans' streets left in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Now the job is close to completion.

Before Hurricane Rita passed, the pumps had cleared most of the flood water from Hurricane Katrina and only 10 percent of the city was still affected. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina on August 30 the hurricane levees surrounding New Orleans were breached in nine places, allowing water from Lake Pontchartrain to enter the city streets.

After Hurricane Rita dumped more rain on the flooded city on September 24, engineers redoubled their efforts and have planned to have East New Orleans dry by today, rather than the October 8 date earlier projected.

The engineers expect the Ninth Ward, one of the re-flooded areas, to have all floodwaters pumped out by today.

On the weekend, the Corps removed the temporary barriers it had erected in advance of Hurricane Rita to protect repairs to two other canal levee breeches. With these barriers removed, engineers were able to pump rainwater into Lake Pontchartrainand into the Industrial Canal.

As Hurricane Rita approached, officials with the Army Corps of Engineers said the repairs to the levees breached by Katrina were not yet strong enough to prevent flooding in another severe storm.

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A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew from Kodiak, Alaska, based out of Air Station Houston drops a sandbag to repair a damaged levee. The Coast Guard dropped 18,000 pounds of sand while working with the National Guard to reconstruct the breeched levees. (Photo by Christopher Evanson courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
The Corps said New Orleans levees could only handle up to six inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet. The Corps drove a massive metal barrier across the 17th Street Canal bed to prevent a storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain from swamping New Orleans again.

Government engineers and private contractors also worked around the clock across New Orleans to repair the damage to the system of pumps, concrete floodwalls, earthen berms and canals that protect the city.

The Corps had 800 giant sandbags weighing 6,000 to 15,000 pounds on hand just in case, and ordered 2,500 more to shore up low spots and plug any new breaches.

June 2006 is still the target for getting the levees of New Orleans back to pre-Katrina strength.

As the floodwater recedes in New Orleans, scientists have been testing it and the mud it leaves behind. So far, results of the testing in New Orleans are encouraging, according to Jerry Fenner, who's leading a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team that is assessing the city's environmental health risks.

Fenner said that while concern has focused on bacteria in New Orleans' sewage contaminated floodwaters, they cannot survive long once the water is pumped away.

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FEMA Acting Under Secretary R. David Paulison surveys damage in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Ninth Ward was flooded twice due to levee breeches. (Photo by Dave Saville courtesy FEMA)
Initial water samples from 24 sites in Lake Pontchartrain show higher-than-normal bacteria after Hurricane Katrina, but nothing to match the alarming predictions that the floodwater could alter the habitat of the lake permanently and damage the fisheries that depend on it, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said.

Carlton Dufrechou, director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, said there is no "toxic soup" in Lake Pontchartrain. The lake can recover from the damage caused by bacteria, toxins, pesticides and metals being pumped out of the city into the lake, state environmental officials said last week at a briefing on the lake's status.

Al Hindrichs, water quality coordinator for the Louisiana Environmental Quality Department, said most damage so far seemed to come from the hurricane itself, rather than from the floodwaters being pumped out of New Orleans. The biggest hits to the lake seem confined to the shore areas, officials said. Fish kills were found on the north shore because of low oxygen levels, not toxins or oils, Hindrichs said.

The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau points hopefully to those who are optimistic that most of New Orleans could be "safely resettled in a few months."

Crews from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been conducting sampling continued on flood, outfall, and surface water, and sediment in the New Orleans area.

EPA's soil and sediment sampling in affected areas along the Gulf Coast is scheduled to begin today. EPA's ocean water testing vessel, the Bold, is surveying the waters of the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico in the plume of the Mississippi River.

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Workers wearing protective clothing scrub the facade of a downtown New Orleans business. Many clubs and hotels in the French Quarter are now cleaning up and hope to return to service soon. (Photo by Win Henderson courtesy FEMA)
The EPA has two bacteriological analysis mobile labs to test drinking water in Louisiana, and one in Gulfport, Mississippi.

EPA teams continue to assess Superfund sites in the area affected by Rita. Twenty seven of the 28 Texas sites have been assessed, the agency said Friday, and five Superfund sites will be assessed in Louisiana.

There are 15 Superfund sites in the hurricane Katrina-affected area of Louisiana, six in Alabama and three in Mississippi. Initial assessments have been conducted on these sites. The EPA is still in the assessment phase, and will continue to monitor all the impacted Superfund sites. Water and sediment samples have been collected at the Agriculture Street site.

Many drinking water facilities have been damaged by the storms. The EPA says in Louisiana, there are a total of 1,591 drinking water facilities that served approximately five million people. As of Friday, EPA crews have determined that 378 of these facilities are operational, 80 are operating on a boil water notice, 32 are not operating. Further information is being gathered on 1,101 of the facilties, but the EPA says most of these are in unaffected areas.

In Mississippi, there are a total of 1,368 drinking water facilities that served some 3.2 million people. EPA has determined that 1,253 of these facilities are operational, 79 are operating on a boil water notice and 36 are inoperable. It should be noted that operational facilities may still be in need of repair or reconstruction. EPA's Water program is continuing to assess all drinking water plants in the affected area.

In the Louisiana affected area, there are a total of 173 public owned wastewater treatment Works. As of Thursday, the EPA determined that 140 of these facilities are operational and 33 facilities are either not operating or their status is unknown.

In the Mississippi affected area, there are a total of 118 public wastewater facilities. The EPA has determined that 114 of these facilities are operational and four are either not operating or their status is unknown.

In the Alabama affected area, seven facilities are operating and one is not operating. It should be noted that operational facilities may still be in need of repair or reconstruction. EPA's Water program continues to assess wastewater treatment plants in the affected area.

In the heart of the populated, 300,000-acre Louisiana rice growing and milling industry, the Mermentau River Basin is being drained of Hurricane Rita floodwater through two locks, one on either side of the basin.

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Fallen superhero lies in the muck of New Orleans' Ninth Ward. (Photo by Patricia Brach courtesy FEMA)
As of Friday, EPA has collected over 50,000 household hazardous waste and orphan containers throughout the affected region. Collection sites are in place in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. EPA personnel are offering technical assistance in the disposal of hazardous waste and other debris left behind by the storm.

The draft Debris Removal Plans for Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, are in final review. The plans will enable federal agencies and the states to comprehensively manage large scale and complex debris.

In Baton Rouge today, Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco plans to meet with local and parish officials from South Louisiana to discuss how the federal government can help local governments get back on their feet after the hurricanes.

Governor Blanco and local officials will discuss amending the Stafford Act to allow the federal government to pay the salaries of critical public safety and other local government employees.

Governor Blanco has said that without federal assistance to pay for restoring critical public services, including law enforcement and public safety, the restoration of many local governments cannot begin.

"Part of getting our communities and our businesses up and running again is having our local governments providing basic services. Every community must have police and fire protection, sewage and water service," said the governor.

"Thatís why Iíve asked President [George W.] Bush and congressional leaders to change the rules of the Stafford Act. We need to allow federal aid money to cover more than overtime for public employees.

"Our cities and parishes need to make payroll. They must pay the men and women who provide those basic services," Blanco said. "Changing the Stafford Act will allow them to provide those basic services."