With hurricane season approaching, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is running through its plans to better protect New Orleans from flooding and testing pumps and floodgates built around this low-lying metropolis since Hurricane Katrina struck 10 years ago.
Corps officials said they found a few minor problems during testing Wednesday and were fixing them. Otherwise, officials said the system is ready and in better shape than ever before.
On Wednesday, crews operated three complex pumping stations and floodgates built at the mouths of major drainage canals that empty into Lake Pontchartrain. The structures were erected after Katrina to keep storm surge from entering the canals and potentially causing breaches. Floodwall failures along two of the canals caused the majority of city flooding during Katrina.
Mike Stack, a Corps chief of emergency management, said a few mechanical problems were encountered during testing, including a faulty gate pump and silting at the base of one floodgate.
“That’s part of the reason for the exercises,” he said about the problems.
The Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1 and lasts until Nov. 30.
After Katrina, Congress gave the Corps $14.5 billion to upgrade and finish the flood protection system around the metropolitan area of New Orleans. The levee system around New Orleans when Katrina struck in 2005 was not complete and had many weak spots. Several major breaches opened up, which led to the flooding of more than 80 percent of the city.
So far the Corps has spent about $12.5 billion on improving the city’s defenses. In addition, the Corps is spending about $1.3 billion on improving the city’s drainage systems.
Col. Rick Hansen, the district commander in New Orleans, said the flood protection work is about 85 percent done. He said there is enough money left to finish what needs to be done, which includes building three major pump stations at the drainage canals and adding covering to about 80 miles of levees to keep them from eroding and getting washed out during a hurricane.
Stack said the Corps would sit down with state and local officials next week to go over more hurricane preparation planning, including worse-case scenarios.
Even though the improved hurricane system around New Orleans is much better than what the city had before Katrina, the Corps says it still can’t safeguard against hurricanes with Katrina’s ferocity. Katrina was a Category 3 hurricane when it landed in south Louisiana and crossed over to Mississippi.
“The region has the best hurricane system it has ever had,” Stack said. But he said residents need to understand that it cannot be relied upon to keep out storm surge from the worst of hurricanes.
“We know there are storms out there that can overwhelm the system,” he said. “Evacuation has to be part of the planning.”
The federal government certified the city’s levee system in 2014 as being up to federal flood insurance protection standards.