NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans may have dodged a bullet — or maybe a big cascading wall of water — but Hurricane Gustav's near-miss showed how vulnerable this low-lying city remains.
As city, state and federal officials began their post-storm assessments amid a hazy, occasionally rainy Tuesday, levee experts cautioned that New Orleans has a long way to go before residents can feel secure that their homes will be there when they come back after the next hurricane evacuation.
"Had the storm surge been 1 or 2 feet higher, with the wind whipping like it was, the water would have been pouring over those floodwalls, not sloshing over," said Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer who's studied the levees. "In the Industrial Canal, those floodwalls were indeed tested, and I hope they don't have to be tested again."
The Industrial Canal is a ship-and-barge navigation channel in the eastern part of the city. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the storm surge brought water to the tops of the concrete walls that separate the canal from neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward. When the water ran over the tops, it undermined the floodwalls, cracking a section wide open and inundating that part of New Orleans. Similar failures occurred elsewhere.
Since then, a stronger, better-designed floodwall has replaced the broken section. But that added protection doesn't extend all along the canal. As Gustav approached, Army Corps of Engineers officials scrambled to add sandbags to one section of the floodwall that they'd determined might be weak.
The canal, where water rose nine and a half feet in 12 hours, may have been within less than a foot of overflowing, said Major Timothy Kurgan of the Army Corps of Engineers.
"We were close," he said. "And there's nothing you can do. You just have to let the storm pass."
What about next time?
The corps is in the midst of a $15 billion project that includes addressing dozens of hot spots among the 325 miles of levees and floodwalls that protect New Orleans. The massive enterprise is 20 percent finished and is scheduled for completion in 2011.
Among the key projects is to place barriers on two navigation channels that feed water — including hurricane storm surges — into the Industrial Canal. Once those barriers are in place, the canal will be far less likely to fill with water as it did Monday.
"If Gustav came next year, you would not have seen that surge in the canal," Kurgan said.
During the hurricane, the corps closed new storm gates on two other drainage canals in the city. Those gates, on New Orleans' northern lakeshore, are designed to prevent the types of levee breaks that caused many of the problems during Katrina.
On Tuesday, corps officials toured the area in helicopters. They'll eventually inspect every mile of the levee system.
Campanella, from Tulane, said the changes to date had been vital and that the rest of the corps project would provide a huge level of protection. He added, however, that the nation still needs to determine how to repair the wetlands along Louisiana's coast. Doing so will help prevent storm surges from even reaching New Orleans.
In the eyes of many in the city, still more needs to be done.
Sandy Rosenthal, the founder of an activist organization called Levees.Org, said the protection ringing New Orleans was better than before Katrina. It'll be better still in 2011.
"But it's not going to be enough," Rosenthal said. Like Campanella, she spent Tuesday far away from the city, having evacuated before the storm.
The plan to provide protection strong enough to withstand a 1 percent storm — a storm that's only 1 percent likely to occur in any given year — is far too small, she said. Over an average resident's lifetime, that means he or she will be exposed to a far bigger cumulative risk, she said. Her organization wants Congress and the corps to spend more money to make the levees even higher and stronger.
"We were scared to death when Gustav developed," she said. "We were most worried about the Industrial Canal. And you saw how the water lapped over the floodwalls. One hundred year protection for a city as important as New Orleans is not good enough."