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Drying of New Orleans exceeds expectations

Despite system failure, huge effort helps city shed its floodwaters

By Jeff Green

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New Orleans (Louisiana)
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Army Corps of Engineers

(CNN) -- Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Katrina ruptured New Orleans' levees, turning most of the city into a lake as deep as 20 feet in places, officials said water was draining much faster than expected.

"We're having very good success," said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, corps commander.

This week, the Army Corps of Engineers -- charged with drying out the city -- said water levels were receding about a foot a day in many areas. Crews were pumping out roughly 10,000 cubic feet of water per second by midweek.

That's good news for tens of thousands of residents who are expected to return in coming weeks. Mayor Ray Nagin said the historic French Quarter has been "high and dry" and would be open for business by September 26.

About a week after the storm hit, a corps official said that it could take till Thanksgiving Day to dry out the region. But the corps has since twice revised that date.

East Orleans is expected to be dry by September 30, rather than the projected October 8 date. St. Bernard Parish should be completed between September 20 and September 30. In Plaquemines Parish, the target date for the east bank of the Mississippi moved from October 18 to September 30.

The target date for downtown New Orleans is a fast-approaching October 2.

The full extent of the damage is unknown, but the flood displaced nearly all residents, destroyed 168,000 New Orleans homes and ruined thousands of businesses.

Despite the progress, much of New Orleans remains covered by billions of gallons of polluted water. Not all of the areas that are drained will be inhabitable, Strock said.

Troops will first move in to recover survivors or victims, and officials will analyze the contamination left behind.

System failure

For years, scientists, Louisiana politicians and journalists warned that the extensive flood-control system protecting New Orleans, about 70 percent of which lies below sea level, would not withstand a hurricane stronger than a Category 3.

Katrina hit land early August 29, just east of New Orleans, as a Category 4 storm, packing 140 mph winds and causing a 20-foot storm surge.

As predicted, the system failed, with levees breached in about nine places, although the corps still has no exact total. A breach at the 17th Street Canal was one of the more serious. Floodwaters eventually swamped 80 percent of the city.

The storm knocked out electricity and the pumping system was overwhelmed. With communications systems down, the corps embarked on an unprecedented effort to plug the leaks before it could even begin removing water.

Sandbags to plug holes

Much of the initial work involved dropping thousands of huge sandbags from helicopters into gaping holes in floodwalls.

Strock since has said that, in retrospect, authorities should have had more helicopters and sandbags in position before Katrina hit land.

"It took a lot more sandbags than we thought," said Col. Richard Wagenaar, the district commander who first went to check on the levees after the storm and encountered impassable water.

But 55 percent of the floodwaters were gone by Thursday, even though most of the city's permanent pumps were not functioning, said the corps' Col. Duane P. Gapinski, who is leading the draining operation.

Strock said the most effective way to do the initial draining was to deliberately breach the levees and let gravity do the work. "The lake level has receded low enough, now we can do that," he said.

"Once we get the water down, the pump stations then are brought back online."

The system is designed to handle rainfall, Strock said, not to empty the flooded city.

Corps officials said improved pumping capacity; better field data, computer modeling, favorable weather and using intentional breaches in the levees to drain water helped the effort.

"We've been blessed with no rainfall," Strock told reporters at the Pentagon.

Gapinski also credited the strong will of the crews working on the system. "They can't put a gauge on determination," he said.

Flushing the city

The New Orleans area's levees and pump stations are normally operated by local officials, Gapinski said.

Funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the corps is working with local staff, other federal agencies, two primary private contractors and subcontractors. Crews from Germany and the Netherlands are pitching in.

The two main private companies, the Shaw Group and Halliburton subsidiary KBR, signed $100 million contracts, officials said.

About 20 percent of the city's pumping capacity was operational, he said, but the amount of water going out each day is actually dropping as some pumps are taken out of service in dry areas.

The amount pumped out dropped from nearly 12 billion gallons a day early in the week to 7 billion gallons on Thursday.

Strock acknowledged concerns over the quality of the water being pumped into Lake Pontchartrain, saying the corps is "working very closely with the Environmental Protection Agency." Still, he said, "there will be unavoidable ecological impacts."

Preparing for worse

The harshest test for the flood-control system could be yet to come.

Haunting the entire recovery effort is the potential vulnerability to another storm -- not just in the current season, which lasts through November, but potentially into next year.

Preparing for that possibility is now Wagenaar's focus.

"We have a reduced level of protection within all the levee districts until we finish a complete assessment of the levees, until we complete emergency repairs to breaches and until we complete permanent repairs," said the corps' Eric Halpin.

That could take up to a year, he said. "So those areas are going to remain vulnerable for some time."

Even then, corps officials said, it would take action by Congress, billions of dollars and several years to fortify the city against a storm stronger than Category 3.

"It's absolutely something that'll keep us up at night," said Halpin. "We have no control over Mother Nature."

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