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Levee plan prompts call to 'come home'

White House announces $3.1B plan to bolster levee system

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New Orleans (Louisiana)
George W. Bush

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In an effort to ensure the levee breaches that put much of New Orleans, Louisiana, underwater after Hurricane Katrina don't happen again, the Bush administration announced Thursday it will spend $3.1 billion to repair the system and make it "stronger than it ever has been."

The money will come in two phases, with the first $1.6 billion going toward repairing the breaches, correcting the design and construction flaws in the system and making the levees taller, said Chairman Don Powell, the federal coordinator of the Gulf Coast recovery effort.

That phase is slated for completion June 1, 2006, the first day of hurricane season. The levee system includes 350 miles of earthen levees and concrete flood walls in the city and surrounding areas.

The other $1.5 billion will fund the closing of three canals in the city and pay for a state-of-the-art pumping system, Powell said. The money also would be used to cover the levees with concrete and stone. (Watch Powell announce more money for New Orleans -- 2:54)

"It's important that people feel safe and move back into the area," he said. "The levee system is vital to that process. The levee system will be better and stronger than it ever has been in the history of New Orleans."

Mayor Ray Nagin, who attended the White House briefing, said he hoped Thursday's news about repairing the levees, which will be 17-feet high at some points, will help lure New Orleanians back to the Big Easy.

"I want to say to all New Orleanians, to all businesses, it's time for you to come home," Nagin said, referring to the tax incentives offered by the federal government to bring businesses back to the city. "We now have the commitment and the funding for hurricane protection at a level that we have never had before." (Watch Nagin tell residents to come home -- 2:08)

Nagin also thanked President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, whose department includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for their efforts. The federal aid package includes "the holy trinity of recovery: levees, housing and incentives," Nagin said.

It was a change of tune for the mayor who, in the aftermath of Katrina, lambasted the federal government and FEMA for their slow response after the flooding.

Powell declined to directly answer the question of whether New Orleans' levees, once repaired, would withstand a Category 5 hurricane, one with winds of more than 155 mph.

But if another Katrina struck, he said, "we would not see the catastrophic results we saw." The new levees may permit some "manageable" flooding, but nothing to the extent of Katrina, he said.

Powell said that when he asked the engineers if it would be safe for his four grandchildren to move to New Orleans, they responded with a quick "yes, yes, yes."

Katrina was briefly a Category 5 storm before coming ashore along the Louisiana-Mississippi border August 29 as a Category 4, with winds stronger than 140 mph. More than 1,300 people died in the storm and subsequent flooding.

The storm, which Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco has said destroyed more than 200,000 homes and nearly 20,000 businesses in her state, is considered the costliest in U.S. history.

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