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Is New Orleans ready for another Katrina?

By Manav Tanneeru
CNN

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Work on floodgates at the 17th Street Canal may not be complete until mid-July, officials said.

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(CNN) -- With the hurricane season just days away, officials in New Orleans and across Louisiana are revising emergency plans, fortifying the levee system and preparing residents for the worst.

But whether the chaos and destruction that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last August can be avoided if another strong storm strikes the state is still very much in question.

The Army Corps of Engineers recently admitted that construction on floodgates and levees will not be finished when hurricane season starts June 1.

Meanwhile, a CNN analysis of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's recent disaster-preparedness plan found a number of gaps in detail and practical application.

"Is there another Hurricane Katrina coming?" Col. Lewis Setliff, who is overseeing repairs for the Army Corps of Engineers, asked CNN's Sean Callebs. "We're going to be very anxious, but I'll tell you -- if these systems are never tested, I'll be happy."

Hurricane season typically runs from June through November. If last year's devastation is any indication of what may happen this year, emergency officials at all levels of government will have their hands full.

Katrina killed more than 1,300 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of others, and the response by local, state and federal officials has been heavily criticized by a series of media, congressional and governmental reports for a lack of planning, communication and resources.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has borne much of the criticism, says it's making the needed changes to be ready this year. (Full story)

State and local officials in Louisiana also expressed confidence about their preparations for this year and pointed to lessons learned from the response to Katrina.

Mark Smith of the Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said state officials would be much more aggressive in planning for and anticipating problems this year.

"We'll be much more prepared to evacuate hospitals, nursing homes and indigent populations, whereas last year we were really reliant on the parish for telling us what their needs were," he said.

State and local officials also are working on making the communications infrastructure more robust in the southern areas of the state, Smith said.

New Orleans officials' new disaster-preparedness plan, unveiled in early May, featured evacuation by public transport, including buses and trains. The plan also made it clear the Superdome and Convention Center wouldn't be used as shelters. (Full story)

"Read my lips: This is a plan for getting people out of the city. There is no shelter of last resort," Mayor Nagin said in announcing the plan.

CNN's review found that the plan may not be as complete as city officials made it sound. For example, no more than 100 buses are available for the job of moving an estimated 10,000 people. (Full Story)

Also of concern are the residents living in more than 50,000 FEMA travel-trailers and mobile homes across the state.

Amy Liu, who is tracking the recovery effort for the Brookings Institution, said many of the residents in trailers have complained of a lack of access to television and the Internet.

"They are living in situations that are very vulnerable to damage, and they're also living in situations completely cut off from any source of communication," she said. "It's really hard for them to be aware of any pronouncements the city makes."

FEMA's new acting director, David Paulison, echoed the concern during an address at a hurricane preparedness conference this spring. "We're particularly interested in the public education plans, of how in the world we're going to notify all these people," he said.

Benny Rousselle, president of Plaquemines Parish, which was devastated by Katrina, said even a strong tropical storm would prompt him to issue an evacuation order, to protect people living in trailers and damaged homes.

Many residents have yet to return to the greater New Orleans area after Katrina, and that also may help evacuation plans if another storm barrels through, Rousselle added.

How strong are the levees?

Perhaps the most important part of the defense system -- and consequently the most scrutinized -- is the levee system, which failed under the intensity and relentless pounding of Katrina.

The levees, which were designed to withstand a Category 3 storm such as Katrina, failed in two ways, experts said. Initially, floodwaters came over the top of the levees. Then, as pressure built up on the levee walls during Katrina's torrents, they gave way at the bottom, leading to the catastrophic flooding of the city.

"It was the holes that killed us," said Bob Bea, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California at Berkley.

The Army Corps of Engineers is addressing the most vulnerable parts of the levee system, making the levees higher in some areas and adding fortification in the areas that were breached.

However, those fortifications only mean that they will be able to protect against a fast-moving Category 3 storm. Anything stronger -- perhaps even another storm on the level of Katrina -- may again overwhelm the levees, experts said.

The Corps recently announced that floodgates being installed to protect New Orleans from storm surges from Lake Pontchartrain may not be operable until mid-July, a delay that has drawn harsh criticism from some Louisiana politicians. (Full story)

The Corps says it has a plan to install steel reinforcements if a major storm approaches before the gates are ready.

Meanwhile, some Louisiana residents said they were unnerved by the Corps' recent admission that a design flaw from decades ago led to the levee breaches.

"What is scary to us is not only looking back to what caused the last failure, but what's going to be fixed by June 1, because if it took this long to admit there were design failures, it makes us less confident in the remaining levees," Louisiana Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, told CNN's Sean Callebs.

Several independent experts who have examined the levees said they were reasonably confident about the measures the Corps has taken to fortify the damaged sections.

They specifically referred to the floodgates that are being put in place at the 17th Street canal, the Orleans canal, and the London Avenue canal -- which all connect to Lake Pontchartrain -- as being keys to ensuring the system returns to pre-Katrina levels.

In the next two phases of the reconstruction process, which have yet to be scheduled, the Corps says it hopes to study and perhaps correct the design flaws that resulted in the levee breaches and further examine what can be done to protect against a Category 4 or Category 5 storm.

Another concern for residents and observers is the erosion of the barrier islands and wetlands on the Gulf Coast because of the unnatural flow of the Mississippi River, industrial activity such as oil drilling, the natural tendency for land to sink due to shifting geologic faults and, ironically enough, the construction of the levees, which altered the way sediments flow.

The islands and wetlands "serve as a speed bump for waves and surge coming in from the Gulf. That's why Katrina today would be much more severe than Katrina in 1950," Bea said.

"That's a way of saying that in the time period of 50 years, we have lost a significant amount of coastal protection around New Orleans, Plaquemines Parish and the rest of southern Louisiana."

Scientists and engineers have floated several ideas -- some of which may cost billions of dollars -- for rebuilding the wetlands and islands. But like many other ideas that address restoration in and around the Gulf Coast, they await a final decision by lawmakers.

CNN's Susan Roesgen, Sean Callebs and Mike Ahlers contributed to this report.

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