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Engineers: New Orleans 'basically dry'

Hurricane Rita threat causes new concerns for levees

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New Orleans (Louisiana)
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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- New Orleans, which flooded when many of the levees and flood walls protecting the city failed after Hurricane Katrina, is mostly drained, an Army colonel told CNN on Tuesday night.

"It's basically dry," said Col. Duane Gapinski of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Earlier, the colonel said the Corps still had some issues to deal with to keep roads clear.

"The city is, well it's not dry, but all the surface water is gone," Gapinski said. "... There's no impediments to traveling. There may be some highway underpasses [holding water], but we continue to pump those out as they fill up. You have mobility almost throughout the entire city."

A spokesman for Gapinski, Mitch Frazier, said there also is water in some outlying areas, and there is localized ponding and pooling, but there are no mechanical means to get the city any drier.

The news comes as officials in New Orleans worry about Hurricane Rita, a category 2 storm barreling into the Gulf of Mexico and threatening the coast from northern Mexico to southwestern Louisiana.

With the storm predicted to grow larger and stronger, authorities are concerned about the weakened and damaged levee system that guards New Orleans, most of which is below sea level.

In the aftermath of Katrina, 80 percent of the city was submerged when several levees were breached and some flood walls broke. Originally, officials said it would take up to 80 days to drain every area of the city. But last week they said the drying process was going much faster than predicted.

The commander of the Corps of Engineers said a significant rain could result in more flooding on the city's east bank, however.

"We think something on the line of 3 inches over six hours would probably put 2 to 4 feet of water in the lower-lying sections of the city," Lt. Gen. Carl Strock said.

Gapinski said that if that happens the Corps should be able to pump the water out in "a couple of days."

The Corps would have the levees back to pre-Katrina levels by next hurricane season, Strock said. Until then, he said, the levees could not withstand "any sizable event."

In the wake of the hurricane of 1947 (the current naming system did not begin until 1953), levees were built along the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain to protect Orleans and Jefferson parishes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Officials raised existing levees in response to the flooding caused by Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Hurricane Georges in 1998 showed the vulnerability of the city, and efforts were made the following year to improve the levee system, according to the USGS.

The levees were built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, and Strock said it will cost billions of dollars and take several years to upgrade the system.

Asked if that meant as many as 10 years before the levees could withstand the most violent storm, he said: "Perhaps earlier than that. But it depends on what solution we come up with, whether we use beefed-up levees or we use a series of barriers."

He added, "The technical solution will drive how long it would take. But we're talking years before we can really guarantee level five protection."

Strock estimated it would cost between $2.5 billion and $3 billion to protect New Orleans from a surge at Lake Pontchartrain.

"To provide level-five protection for the entire coast would be considerably more than that," Strock said.

CNN's Carol Costello contributed to this report.

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