- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Authorities in New Orleans are counting on the city’s vast drainage system — powered by major pumps that have been overwhelmed by Hurricane Katrina — to repel the floodwater once failed levees are repaired. But it won’t be easy.

The days or weeks it takes before the breaches in the city’s levees are plugged creates a frustrating Catch-22 for engineers.

Repairs and restoration of power are difficult while the pumps are under water, but drainage is difficult without the pumps. The levees, built to protect the city from floods, are preventing the floodwater from receding.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” said John Hall, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, who declined to speculate on how long it might take to dry the city’s streets.

Water removal will be “far too big” a project without the pumps, he said. Even if authorities planted large independent pumping machines around the city, he said, “for the size of this problem, that would be like getting a lot of people out there with buckets.”

Some flood-control pumps were broken, choked by excess water or storm debris. Others lack power. Roofs are reported collapsed on at least two major pumping stations.

By today, the city is expected to be under as much as 9 feet of water, city officials told a New Orleans TV station last night.

Without the pumps, much of the floodwater will have nowhere to drain. The city is cradled in a bowl an average of 6 feet below sea level.

The pump system is designed to collect storm water from drainage points and pump it into Lake Pontchartrain to the city’s north.

Authorities said the flood wall along the 17th Street Canal sustained a 500-foot-long breach from Katrina’s rising waters.

At the head of that canal sits “the biggest drainage pumping station in the world,” Alfred C. Naomi, an Army Corps of Engineers project director, told the Engineering News-Record.

“Because of the breach, it’s shut down. So water is coming in from the lake into the city,” Mr. Naomi said. “We have to devise a plan to plug the breach and turn the pumps back on.”

Late yesterday, officials began using National Guard cargo helicopters to drop 3,000-pound sandbags onto huge breakage points atop two of the concrete flood walls that protect New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain.

Another breach occurred in the level along the Industrial Canal near the Mississippi.

Mr. Hall said three out of four other pumps in Jefferson Parish, which surrounds New Orleans, also failed because of breaches in the flood wall.

Authorities warned of dangers ahead. Louisiana’s frequent summer rains, or even another hurricane, could add to flooding in coming days or weeks, they said. The sitting water could collect more contaminants from homes and industries, and mosquitoes would amplify the danger of disease.

“Because it doesn’t drain, there’s a chance for things to concentrate,” said Marc Levitan, a flooding specialist at Louisiana State University.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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