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Rollin' With

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials in New Orleans

Posted: Wednesday October 18, 2006 12:03PM; Updated: Wednesday October 18, 2006 12:28PM
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Michael Silver observes the lingering damage in New Orleans.
Michael Silver observes the lingering damage in New Orleans.
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On a gorgeous Saturday in New Orleans, I woke up early to sip lattes with Saints coach Sean Payton at the team's training facility. I had lunch on St. Charles Avenue with halfback Deuce McAllister and dinner (and a prime spot for Cal football viewing) at a Warehouse District bar with linebacker Scott Fujita, his wife, Jaclyn, his brother, Jason, their buddy Mike and practice squad receiver Chase Lyman. We ended up at Scott and Jaclyn's killer condo two floors up from one owned by famed restaurateur Emeril Lagasse, standing out on their spacious deck and staring down at the revelers below.

Hey, it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

All of this helped me write a story about the resurgent Saints for this week's Sports Illustrated. But none of those experiences were as memorable as the two-hour tour of post-Katrina wreckage and repair that I took with two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials. As they are not allowed to be quoted, I will refer to them as Mr. Smith and Mrs. Jones.

Our tour began at the 17th Street Canal, on the north side of the city -- up against the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. I was standing atop a rebuilt levee that, I would soon learn, is only a temporary measure in the ongoing struggle to protect the Crescent City from the next horrific storm.

Silver: So, is this one of the levees that was breached?

Smith: Well, actually, the levees themselves weren't breached. A number of them eroded, but not down to sea level. It was the canal walls that were breached. This canal runs through the city, and the wall was breached on the east side. The Orleans Canal, which is narrower and shallower, held up on both sides. The London Canal breached on both sides. And the Industrial Canal, which is next to the Ninth Ward, breached on the lower side. It was overtopped for a couple of hours before that, so even if it hadn't breached, it would've been a disaster. It became a catastrophe when a large section of the lower wall breached all at once and unleashed what essentially was a tsunami.

Silver: Tell me about the levee I'm standing on. If another storm like Katrina hit, could it stand up to the onslaught?

Smith: This levee has been rebuilt with 11 gates, eight of which are open right now. If a hurricane with a storm surge were to threaten the city, the gates would be closed, which would eliminate the problem of open canals. The bottom line with Katrina was that the canal walls which were intended to prevent a storm surge, among other things, failed to do that. These gates take the walls out of the equation. With all of that said, everything you're looking at is temporary; it'll all be replaced by a larger, stronger, more capable structure in the next five years or so. It could be a structure similar in concept; another possibility is not to build gates at all but to complete the levee and permanently close the canal while putting a pumping station here. Water would be pumped into the levee at all times, and in the event of a storm, water would be pumped back out into the lake.

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