231-922-9460 | Google +

Monday, May 31, 2010

Hurricane Season Begins Tuesday with $5.8 Billion of Work still in Progress


More than $1.1 billion worth of construction on the levee system that rings the New Orleans region is finished and another $5.8 billion is under way as the curtain rises this week on a new hurricane season that many predict could be the most active since the grim Katrina-Rita year of 2005.

If forecasts are correct -- and that's always a crapshoot -- the cumulative effect of repairs, improvements and additions to 350 miles of levees, floodwalls and gates under the 159 finished contracts means that 2010 tropical storms will encounter a hardier system than the one that fell apart during Katrina almost five years ago, say numerous engineers familiar with the work.

"We're better off this year than last year. The system is already stronger and more resilient than at any time in history," said Karen Durham-Aguilera, the Army Corps of Engineers' Task Force Hope director ramrodding $14 billion in work to the federal Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, which was known simply as the Hurricane Protection System before Katrina exposed its grave deficiencies.

The overall rebuilding is far from complete. And until it is, the flood control system will still have gaps that would have to be plugged with giant sand bags and baskets, sheet piling or other materials able to hold back water.

More than 100 contracts remain to be awarded, including 16 that will be required to complete the new "100-year" level of protection that Congress authorized after Katrina. And of those contracts now in progress, some won't help at all until the 2011 storm season, but others will.

"There's a lot still to do, yes. But are we better off than ever before? Our engineers tell us absolutely," said Tim Doody, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East overseeing levee operations in East Jefferson, St. Bernard Parish and the east bank of New Orleans. "And even though there's still a lot of work left to do, each passing day gives us a bit more protection.

"Having said that, it's important that everybody remember: We won't have 100-year protection until all the projects are finished next year or whenever the corps actually completes the work," he said.

"And even then, 100-year protection isn't nearly enough, so it will remain critical that residents go when the evacuation call is given," he said.

Post-Katrina urgency

More than 1,800 people died as a result of the Aug. 29, 2005, storm, most of them drowning in New Orleans when Katrina drove a record surge of water into the southeast Louisiana coast. Waves destroyed some levees, and in other cases floodwalls with no more than 8 or 9 feet of water against them collapsed.

As a result of that tragedy, Congress authorized about $14 billion worth of repairs and upgrades to the shattered flood protection system, the heart of which is upgrading it to provide "100-year" protection -- a misnomer because it has nothing to do with one storm blowing through each century. Instead, it's a flood event with a 26 percent chance of occurring in the life of a 30-year mortgage, according to the explanation favored by the American Society of Civil Engineers and other professional groups. By way of comparison, Katrina was generally considered to be a 396-year event, and it didn't even make a direct hit on the Louisiana coast.

In addition to building the 100-year system -- which is supposed to be in place by June 1, 2011 -- the money is also paying to repair drainage pumps and "stormproof" pump stations, to build "safe housing" for emergency personnel and to improve internal drainage.

Of the $14 billion, some $9 billion to $10 billion will be spent on actual construction, with about 50 percent or 60 percent of that going to 100-year projects. The other $4 billion to $5 billion goes to architects, engineers and other contractors engaged in pre-construction work, as well as the corps.

In some cases, a single finished project is expected to make a world of difference to nearby neighborhoods, even before the entire system is complete. To see one example, look no further than the West Bank of the Mississippi River, which had precious little protection when Katrina and Rita blew through.

"I truly, truly feel better about our protection over here," said Jerry Spohrer, special assisant to the president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West. "Our biggest area of jeopardy for years has been the east side of Harvey Canal, and essentially that work is complete. We're in great shape . even though we're not finished with everything.''

Great risk remains

Despite 32 completed contracts on the West Bank, 34 others are in progress and more than a dozen still not awarded, which means residents should remember there is still great risk, agreed Spohrer and the corps' West Bank area senior project manager, Julie Vignes.

Vignes identified the two most vulnerable spots as the eastern tie-in to Plaquemines Parish near Oakville and the massive western tie-in complex, both areas where no previous protection existed.

The eastern tie-in will link West Bank levees to the river levees in Plaquemines Parish. The Western Closure Complex will reduce the risk of surge for West Bank portions of Jefferson, Orleans and Plaquemines parishes. It will include the largest sector gate in the United States and the largest drainage pump station in the world.

The single largest contract awarded to date is the $1 billion-plus Inner Harbor Navigation Canal /Lake Borgne Surge Barrier to reduce the risk of surge damage to St. Bernard Parish and much of New Orleans. By the height of this storm season, the corps estimates that crews working around the clock will have completed more than 90 percent of the 10,000-foot-long barrier wall, its barge gate and tie-ins to the 100-year elevation. There will also be a cofferdam in place at the Gulf Intracoatal Water Way and Bayou Bienvenue.

"Although this is significant progress since last year and would help to reduce storm surge, it's difficult to quantify what level of protection the barrier will provide before it's complete," corps Col. Robert Sinkler said.

"We are better off there than we were last" year, he said, but for the six months of the 2010 hurricane season, the walls of the Industrial Canal will continue to be the primary defense against storm surges.

Once work is complete on this barrier and its companion Seabrook barrier -- where construction hasn't begun yet -- they should protect the canal from surges.

The corps is just now completing several million dollars worth of work to stabilize some more worrisome sections of the walls and to try and neutralize seepage in other areas.

Lakefront work stalls

Along Lake Pontchartrain, no contracts have been awarded yet to increase protection at Causeway Boulevard in Metairie or to build a taller, stronger floodwall to help protect Kenner and East Jefferson's western flank from surges out of Lake Pontchartrain. And because of concrete contractor disputes and other delays, work is only now starting on better surge protection for East Jefferson pump stations.

But the task of enlarging levees and replacing floodwalls, gates and ramps along most of the East Jefferson lakefront and the New Orleans lakefront is at or near the finish line.

Already, officials said 95 percent of the work along the New Orleans lakefront east to the Industrial Canal will be complete when the season opens. The project still in progress between the 17th Street Canal and Topaz Street will be protected with Hesco baskets if a storm threatens. Five new vehicle gates are due to be installed by mid-June, but Capt. Brock Schmidt said the old gates can be secured in place in the event of an earlier threat.

Although controversy continues over the best method of permanently protecting three New Orleans outfall canals, Sinkler said the interim gates and pumps installed after Katrina already provide 100-year protection.

By the peak of this season, corps section chief Brett Herr said, the enlargement of all East Jefferson lakefront levees should be complete to the 100-year level.

"That will give us a 100-year level of risk reduction all along the lakefront, except at Causeway and the Suburban and Elmwood pump stations," he said. "And that's significant improvement over last year."

Most of the big projects underway in St. Bernard and eastern New Orleans aren't expected to provide help this year.

In St. Charles Parish, Herr said 12 of 13 contracts required for increased protection are underway. Most of the system's 10 miles of levees had to be degraded so that new geotextile material could be laid, a method of increasing stability without enlarging the levee footprint.

He said the Louisiana concrete contractors are required to restore the degraded levees to the previously authorized elevation of 13½ feet by June 1, after which they'll continuing raising to 16½ feet.

Additionally, he said at least three floodwalls will be partially or entirely removed during this season, but he said contractors are required to drive sheet piling or use giant Hesco baskets to close the gaps.