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Checkpoints, smells and dead fish

News

Average working day: 16 hours.

Average temperature, 40-C.

Average accommodation, an offi ce floor.

These are the working conditions endured by engineers working to put New Orleans back together after Hurricane Katrina.

US Army Corps engineer Richard Pinner's house is under water but he is on site every day as team leader for the London Avenue Canal delivery team, making sure contractors hired by the Corps are executing to the letter the plan to 'unwater' the city.

Pinner also knows that some of his colleagues from the New Orleans district office are still unaccounted for.

The Corps of Engineers has drafted in staff from across the US and NCE joined one of the daily convoys it sends from its Baton Rouge centre to New Orleans.

The rst experience of the devastated city is police checkpoints on the main highway. Then as the convoy gets further into the city, there are the blown out windows, the flooded underpasses, and the looted shops.

After an army checkpoint the convoy approaches the Army Corps of Engineers' base.

Accommodation is provided on site in the building's offices, while food and running water comes courtesy of the dredging ship 'Wheeler', which had just finished a job on the Mississippi when Katrina blew into town.

And then, when the work begins, comes the smell.

As well as enduring the blistering heat, workers must inhale the noxious fumes coming from the dark blue soup surrounding them - a mixture of stagnant water, sewage, oil and other unthinkable horrors.

When asked if he ever got used to the smell, New Orleans district commander Colonel Richard P Wagenaar replied: 'It just gets worse - it's like working in a sewer.' But the engineers' work hasn't gone unnoticed.

The day after the 17th Street canal was breach was closed, US vice president Dick Cheney arrived to thank Wagenaar and project team leader Kenny Crumpholt.

Crumpholt, and New Orleans Sewage & Water Board chief of engineering Rudi St Germaine, were also awarded the highest honour a US army general can give, the General's Coin.

Corps of Engineers chief of engineering General Strock was full of praise for his team.

'It's amazing to me that you have lost your homes, your families are scattered, and you're here, working.' In areas that have now dried out, one might be forgiven for thinking that normality might soon return.

But there are still reminders of what has happened - whether it is a dead fish on the pavement, or a luxury yacht in the middle of the road.

JM

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