- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — The Army Corps of Engineers raced to mend New Orleans’ fractured levee system yesterday, and residents were forced to decide yet again whether to stay or go as a new hurricane threatened the city.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and other officials strongly urged people along the Louisiana coast to be prepared to evacuate and said nearly 500 buses stood ready.

“The protection is very tenuous at best,” said Dave Wurtzel, the Army Corps official responsible for repairing the 17th Street Canal levee, whose huge breach during Hurricane Katrina caused the worst of the floods that soaked the city.

The new threat was Hurricane Rita, which strengthened into a 100-mph Category 2 storm as it barreled past the Florida Keys into the Gulf of Mexico.

“We are praying that the hurricane dissipates or that it weakens,” said Mrs. Blanco, who declared a state of emergency. “This state can barely stand what happened to it.”

The storm was projected to cross the Gulf and hit Texas by the end of the week. But a slight turn to the right was possible, and engineers warned that even a glancing blow to New Orleans and as little as 3 inches of rain could swamp the city’s levees as early as tomorrow.

In anticipation of Rita, the Corps drove a massive metal barrier across the 17th Street Canal bed to prevent a storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain from swamping New Orleans again. Although engineers have left a large opening in the wall to allow floodwater to continue to be pumped back into the lake, it will have to be closed quickly if the storm threatens.

“This is what we’re going to have to rely on to protect this canal and this part of the city,” Mr. Wurtzel said.

Government engineers and private contractors also worked round-the-clock across New Orleans to repair the damage to the system of pumps, concrete flood walls, earthen berms and canals that protect the city.

In addition, the Corps had 800 giant sandbags weighing 6,000 to 15,000 pounds on hand, and had ordered 2,500 more to shore up low spots and plug any new breaches. It was also putting pumps and other materials where they might be needed.

“If New Orleans was directly affected by a Category 1, I would be concerned — I would pull my people out,” said David Pezza, the top geotechnical engineer for the Army Corps. “These levees are greatly compromised.”

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