In all of New Orleans, the abnormal became normal – and stayed that way|[08/26/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 26, 2007

NEW ORLEANS – In the days after Katrina swept ashore, network anchors would pull on hip boots, stand in the water and tell their viewers around the globe that the Big Easy was really a big, below sea-level bowl.

Not exactly. It’s more like a compartmented lunch tray, said Barry Fletcher, who spent 20 years as a member of the New Orleans Police Department and has spent the past several months escorting visitors around the city trying to explain what happened on Aug. 29, 2005, and what’s been done about it.

Vast areas east of the city went under, staying under for days, and even today hundreds of homes remain just as they were when their owners fled – except with 24 months of mold, rot and stench added.

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Methodical, expensive and convoluted efforts have been under way since, complicated by the layers of government involved. New Orleans is still a long way from normal, and fewer and fewer are around who remember what &#8220normal” was like.

The Storm

Something often forgotten is that Katrina was not an unexpected guest. It was the storm everybody knew was coming, but not when.

Locals along the Lakefront and Lake View Terrace areas, for example, knew their homes were built in a great marsh drained fewer than 100 years ago to allow the city to grow.

An array of levees and floodwalls had been established through the years, but interspersed with large canals to assist with something crucial to the local and national economies – waterborne commerce – as well as smaller canals to provide rain drainage from &#8220the bowl.”

To the east of the city is Lake Borgne. The Intracoastal Waterway extends toward the city from Lake Borgne and forms a &#8220T” into the Industrial Canal that connects Lake Pontchartain on the north with the Mississippi River on the south. It’s as essential to ships as an interstate highway is to an 18-wheeler.

Katrina’s winds and tidal surge pushed more water up the Intracoastal Waterway than it could handle, and by 4:30 a.m., water was trickling through damaged Industrial Canal gates and filling Gentilly and Eastern New Orleans areas.

By 5 a.m., there was so much water in Lake Borgne that a lower levee was overtopped and broke up. Flooding poured into lower St. Bernard Parish where it was stopped, for a while, by a secondary levee.

At 6:30 a.m., water was as much as 5 feet higher than the levees that normally protected New Orleans East from flooding. It went under. All of it.

Not long after, the Industrial Canal walls were overtopped and started to fail. That’s when the rushing torrent, strong enough to move houses off their foundations, raged into the Lower 9th Ward.

Until that time, New Orleans proper was safe. There are three main drainage canals into which the city’s storm water is pumped so it can flow, unimpeded, into Lake Pontchartrain. All three – 17th Street, Orleans Avenue and London Avenue – extend from Uptown, the Central Business District and Broadmoor and Carrolton areas through Lakefront and straight out to the big lake.

But as Katrina moved north on the east side of the city, the winds shifted and started backfilling the canals with Pontchartrain water. The lake’s main levees were plenty and sufficient. Not so with the canals.

A wall in the 17th Street Canal was the first to give way.

Back on the Lake Borgne front, if the Lower 9th Ward hadn’t been flooded by a wall of the Industrial Canal breaking, it would have been by the failure of the secondary Arpent Canal levee. When that levee was overtopped, the areas known as Arabi, Chalmette, Meraux, Violet and Poydras joined the Lower 9th under water – all of it.

By 9 a.m. over on Pontchartain, walls were seen bending outward on the London Avenue Canal, but something else was happening on the Orleans Avenue Canal. Water had run all the way up its 2-mile length and spilled out into City Park.

The water kept rising for nearly 48 hours, until levels with Lake Pontchartrain were reached about noon on Sept. 1.

By then, not only were areas in parishes all around New Orleans reeling from similar wind and water damage, one of the largest cities in the South was navigable only by boat. Fully, 80 percent of the area was flooded, including 25,000 homes, some 15,000 of which were damaged beyond repair.

Inside many of them, floating amid other debris, were Aug. 28 editions of The Times-Picayune newspaper, which later received two Pulitzers for its hurricane reporting. That edition contained a page-size map of the areas that were likely to go under. Katrina was more severe, but the map was amazingly accurate.

The expected but unwelcome storm had come.

Because Katrina was taken so seriously, more than 90 percent of the area’s residents had fled, starting up to 72 hours before the hurricane and increasing when Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation order on Aug. 28.

Still, Katrina killed 1,577 people in Louisiana. That’s a big number, but in context the loss of life was low. Katrina’s storm surge, at 28 to 30 feet, was actually higher than the Dec. 26, 2004, Asian tsunami. That event, which came without warning, killed 230,000.

Knowing the storm was coming made a difference in terms of death, but not in terms of destruction.

The recovery

Almost as soon as the water went down, complications arose. Some have been political, some systemic, others bureaucratic. Stir a modicum of corruption into the mad scramble for free-flowing recovery dollars and there’s at least the outline of an answer to the question: Why is it taking so long?

Rob Wilcox, manager of the Orleans Operations Center of the Army Corps of Engineers, concedes the frustration. The Corps, operating under a Federal Emergency Management Agency umbrella, established and has maintained a recovery field office, initially numbering 1,100 people and now down to 100.

The role of the Corps, as always, has mostly been to act as managers who come up with approaches or engineering designs and hire private contractors to carry them out. But all Corps efforts have required state and local coordination – which has meant meetings, discussions, delays – and, of course, money, which was slow, at first, in coming.

The first mission was to &#8220de-water,” followed by critical needs such as clearing roads, restoring power, establishing water and sewer utilities. All of that was done, including the placement of 81,218 temporary &#8220blue tarp” roofs in New Orleans and across the rest of Louisiana by March 2006.

Then everything more or less stopped.

&#8220Right after the emergency got stale, there was a decision that they weren’t going to treat it as an emergency as far as environmental, residential recovery efforts were to go,” Wilcox said.

To go in, bulldoze everything and start from scratch would have been faster and cheaper, but it wasn’t what authorities wanted. Recovery has been a matter of going house by house, business by business, street by street.

&#8220To my way of thinking, that’s not the way to go,” Wilcox said, &#8220but when the decision is made, that’s what we’re going to do, that’s the way we’re going to do it.”

Other decisions seemed to defy logic. For example, early debris removal efforts were undertaken on an emergency basis to contain the risk of disease. Yet only &#8220private” refuse was hauled away. Crews going down a street would pick up a household’s ruined washing machine, mattresses, wet wallboard and insulation and bypass a corner market’s battered freezer and soaked boxes of cereal.

The commercial waste, just as likely to cause disease, was left in place because someone assumed a commercial firm would have insurance and hire a private hauler and, legally speaking, obtain a &#8220double benefit.” So large areas, shopping centers and such, were left untouched.

In a parallel process, protection from future storms was deemed a priority – perhaps a higher priority than residential and commercial recovery – with the announced goal of having flood protection restored at least as good as it was before Katrina by the storm’s first anniversary.

Part of that included &#8220gating” the outlets of the three canals, 17th Street, Orleans Avenue and London Avenue, to Lake Pontchartrain.

That was done at a cost of about $530 million. Today, each canal has giant steel panels that can be dropped into concrete slots to prevent water from flowing back into the canals and into the city. Arrays of electric pumps are in position should the doors ever be closed to move rain and seepage water out of the canals, over the structures and out to the lake. Since power is usually the first thing to go, an array of diesel generators is also part of each complex. Each can be remotely operated and on-site storage will provide enough fuel for 15 days.

The solid but hastily constructed installations, however, are temporary.

John Ashley of Vicksburg, normally a lead engineer for the Mississippi Valley Divisions, has been in New Orleans for 18 months as chief of permanent pump station design – and the design is not yet decided.

&#8220We have the interim solution in place,” Ashley said. &#8220But we want to get a systemwide solution and get it right this time.”

The Corps has faced such hostility to the point that personnel going into the field were at one time advised not to wear any identifying clothing. Reports amounting to hundreds of pages document that there were, indeed, inadequecies in design and in construction of some protective structures. It was wrong, however, Ashley said to blame the federal engineers completely or to pretend New Orleans would have escaped unscathed except for the failures.

What the hostility has meant, however, is there’s a big &#8220human element” to contend with in meetings and discussions with the locals who, under standard Corps procedures, will own, maintain and operate whatever approach is eventually taken.

&#8220It’s really gut-wrenching at a lot of these meetings,” said Ashley, who also served multiple tours in Iraq, &#8220because a lot of these people suffered so much.”

Progress, he said, is being made on an approach to keep canals from backflowing over the long term. The cost will be another $1 billion or so. &#8220The job takes a lot of coordination and you have to build trust,” he said. &#8220It takes time to do it right.”

On the housing front, however, things are wrapping up – at least as far as the Corps is concerned. A Sept. 30 shutdown of the Recovery Field Office is planned, with remaining demolitions and right-of-way clearance to be managed by the City of New Orleans.

Barry Fletcher’s family was living near Vicksburg Street and close to the Lakefront area when the storm hit. He was in Iraq, serving as director of logistics for the training of Iraqi police. They evacuated to Baton Rouge and, like thousands of others, their home is back in good shape.

But the middle-class neighborhood, just like the wealthy neighborhoods and those with shotgun shack next to shotgun shack, all have one thing in common. Drive down the street and there’s a slab, a fully repaired house, a house under repair, one not touched since the day of the storm.

&#8220Every story is different,” Fletcher said. &#8220Every situation is different.” It didn’t have a name, but for years everyone knew Katrina was coming. In the aftermath, &#8220normal” is a word in search of a definition.