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New Orleans and Headquarters Corps Personnel Describe Levee Repair Efforts

Corps of Engineers officials from the New Orleans District and headquarters in Washington D.C. held a press conference call with approximately 34 reporters from 3 to 4 p.m. EDT, August 31, to answer questions concerning repair of the breached levees in the New Orleans area.

The damage occurred after Hurricane Katrina had passed, when high water overtopped the levees, breaching the levees and flooding all of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.

Don Basham, chief of Engineering and Construction and Connie Gillette participated from Corps Headquarters in Washington D.C. John Rickey, Public Affairs Officer for the Mississippi Valley Division, and New Orleans District managers Greg Breerwood, Deputy District Engineer for Project Management, and Walter Baumey, chief of Engineering Development, participated from Vicksburg, Mississippi.

New Orleans District personnel set up temporary headquarters in Vicksburg when hurricane Katrina became a threat to the New Orleans area.

The Corps of Engineers building in New Orleans is set high enough to be clear of the water that has flooded Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. The District Commander remained in a bunker on site during the storm, and a skeleton crew is manning the building.

John Rickey stressed that many of the Corps personnel working on the emergency do not know the condition of their own families and property, as communication with the city has been cut off.

The New Orleans area, which is below sea level, has been flooded by at least three breaches in the dikes that protect the city and surrounding area. The focus of the discussion was on a 300-foot breach in the 17th Street Canal levee that separates Jefferson Parish from Lake Ponchartrain. As of 3 p.m. local time, the lake level was at 3.2 feet, up from a normal 1.5 feet, and no water was moving through the breach.

Breerwood said that they had mobilized two Chinook helicopters, with four more en route, to lower 15,000-pound sandbags into the breaches. This operation was expected to begin on the evening of August 31.

Chinook helicopters are air mobile platforms designed to move heavy equipment into war zones.

The other breached dikes are at the Industrial Canal and London Avenue. All the broken dikes are concrete and steel design, which were damaged by water overtopping them and weakening the structure. The width of the gaps is not known, as the only information available is from viewing aerial photos, but they are estimated at several hundred feet each.

In conjunction with the airlift, efforts will be made to approach and repair the breaches from land.

New Orleans and Jefferson Parish are protected by extensive pumping systems, which keep water out of the city. The pumps in Orleans Parish have been submerged and are not operating; the pumps in Jefferson County are operating. Once the pumps are all operating and the breaches are repaired, the Corps may purposely breach dikes in three places to allow the water to exit, then immediately repair the gaps, said Baumey. These locations are in lower Plaquemines Parish, in New Orleans’s 9th Ward in the eastern part of the city, and on the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal.

There will be no problem pumping the water out, said Baumey. The pump stations have tremendous capacity, but there is no estimate as to the time it will take.

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