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Levees in Question as Hurricane Season Approaches


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. My colleague Michele Norris and I are in New Orleans this week focusing today on shelter. Six months after Katrina made landfall, where can people live? The question is not just about the four walls of a house, it's also about the walls that separate land from water in this city which is bordered by vast brackish lakes, and the Mississippi River, and sliced by manmade canals and waterways. Can the levees of New Orleans be rebuilt to protect the city from the storm next time? Well joining us is the man who's in charge of seeing to it that they can. Colonel Lewis Setliff of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is commander of Task Force Guardian, which is, well it's the guardian of New Orleans. Welcome to the program.

Col. LEWIS SETLIFF (Army Corps of Engineers, Commander, Task Force Guardian): Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

SIEGEL: And we're out here at one of your projects. Tell us where we are along the industrial canal.

Col. SETLIFF: We're on the industrial canal, which is to the East of New Orleans, and it's one of the breached sites, where we had a floodwall breach and allowed water into the Ninth Ward.

SIEGEL: Qualitatively you intend this to be different from the wall that was here. The wall that the water pushed right into the adjoining neighborhood, the lower Ninth Ward?

Col. SETLIFF: That's correct. We intend for this to not only be better but to be stronger.

SIEGEL: It's going to be what they call a T-wall, and inverted T anchored by I-beams dug deep into the earth. Could it withstand the force of, say, a category five hurricane, if it hit New Orleans?

Col. SETLIFF: Well the, it will prevent any water that overflows from eroding the earth behind it, and causing catastrophic failure. A category five, though, is a very big storm. And the design parameters, I think, would be exceeded by a category five at this point.

SIEGEL: You mean the big storm that we were worried about some day hitting New Orleans, and indeed Katrina, calmed down to a three by the time it hit the earth, we're still not ready to deal with that even if you can finish all this?

Col. SETLIFF: Well what we're trying to do is minimize the risk. We're building a very stable platform that will withstand a lot of pressure and at the same time be able to withstand any water that overtops the structure itself.

SIEGEL: In three months, the 2006 hurricane season officially begins. Will this project be completely done by that time?

Col. SETLIFF: This project will be complete by the 1st of June, which is the start of the next hurricane season. Yes it will.

SIEGEL: When people in New Orleans say that the entire country, the federal government should cover the property loss from the flooding after Katrina. They say that because they say really it wasn't so much an act of God, as an act of government. That if the government had built better originally, planned better, maintained better, the wall that use to be where we're standing right now, would not have given way and been pushed all the way to the lower Ninth Ward. They right?

Col. SETLIFF: I don't know. I will tell you that we have spent a lot of time in the last, really last six months as you said, since the storm, trying to restore the levels of protection that the citizens of New Orleans deserve. And that's taken up my own time personally as well as about 200 dedicated engineers that are part of Task Force Guardian. I do think the elected officials in New Orleans need to represent their constituents. If anything was wrong, the Corp of Engineers is accountable and will be accountable for our work. And although, let's, we do have several independent investigations ongoing, right now it cannot impede our progress to restore this protection system.

SIEGEL: Colonel Setliff, the challenge to you it seems is that the whole of the old walls didn't collapse. They didn't all fall in. There were a couple of breaches. So it seems as if a system of levees is only as good as the weakest link of the system?

Col. SETLIFF: You're absolutely correct. It's the weakest link in the chain is where you have to focus your efforts. A concurrent effort of the Corp of Engineers is to do a very detailed assessment of the entire hurricane protection system.

SIEGEL: I want you to explain just to assure us that you're not, as generals have been accused of doing, fighting the last war. That is, you're repairing and rebuilding the places where the system failed under Katrina. What if they fail somewhere else?

Col. SETLIFF: Well we're very cognizant of the theory of fighting the last war. The Corp of Engineers is authorized by Congress to do certain things and we're told specifically what we can and can't do. In this particular case, we're told we can make repairs to the system. But we're going to do that smartly. We're going to make sure that these repairs provide better and stronger protection. And we're authorized and resourced to do that, and we're doing it.

SIEGEL: Well Colonel Setliff, thank you very much for talking with us.

Col. SETLIFF: You're very welcome, sir.

SIEGEL: That's Colonel Lewis Setliff who is commander of Task Force Guardian of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans. You can learn more about the challenge of rebuilding New Orleans levees at our website Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.