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State of flux

Hurricane Katrina - A year after Hurricane Katrina ripped New Orleans to shreds, John McKenna returns to the city to find little in the way of recovery.

On 15 September 2005, 17 days after Hurricane Katrina swept across the US Gulf Coast, President George Bush made a promise to those whose world had been ripped apart by the storm: 'Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.' Yet one year after the tragedy, New Orleans, the worst affected of all the cities hit by the hurricane, has yet to produce a rebuild plan (NCE 20 July).

In the Big Easy, reconstruction has taken a leisurely pace. Near Lake Pontchartrain in the north of the city (see map), in areas such as the upmarket Lakeview suburb, which was flooded by levee failures both at the 17th Street and London Avenue canals, there is sporadic gutting and refurbishing of homes. But while there may be one house on a street with a new lick of paint, it is often surrounded by untouched properties with overgrown gardens and high water marks on their walls.

To the south-west of New Orleans, in less afuent areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward, it is hard to find any sign of repair and revitalisation. When the Industrial Canal floodwall failed in three places, two of the breaches let water rush into the suburb, lifting houses off their foundations and dumping them on top of cars or other houses.

Today, these houses remain where the water left them.

With repair work across the city piecemeal at best, why have the citizens, local government and local businesses of New Orleans failed to mount a concerted effort to rebuild?

Mayor Ray Nagin called on local communities to contribute their views on the rebuild under his 'Bring New Orleans Back' consultation. On 5 July, the planning process ofcially began with the city's 73 neighbourhoods creating and co-ordinating their own recovery plans. The plans will be vetted by guidelines from the city planning commission, the city council, the mayor, the state legislature, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Getting to this stage has been arduous. Implementing the plans may prove even harder.

Louisiana State University landscape architecture director Bruce Sharky says one of the problems is that so many left the city during the ooding and have not returned. Estimates of New Orleans' current population range between 181,000 and 250,000, compared with a pre-Katrina level of 484,674.

'It's very hard to come up with a consensus on how to rebuild a place when over half the population aren't there, ' says Sharky. He adds that it is difcult to ask people what should be done with their neighbourhoods if they have failed to return to their homes. Conversely, they are unlikely to return to their homes until the long-term future of the city is made clear.

Sharky adds that many who fled New Orleans have found better lives elsewhere. 'Even before Katrina, New Orleans's school system, for example, was in terrible shape. The people that have moved and settled in Texas or wherever, the children are probably now in better schools.' The lack of a rebuild plan has frustrated private investors, according to Louisiana Economic Development Department director Dell Dempsey. 'I understand there are a lot of international investors and banks sat on the sidelines waiting for the [planning] issues to be resolved, ' she says.

The only signicant source of funding is the same as the day Katrina struck - FEMA. It has ploughed $107bn (£56.5bn) into the affected areas in Mississippi and Louisiana, on items ranging from food tokens to £440M for repairs to New Orleans' levees and the installation of floodgates on its canals.

Much of the money has been spent on clearing debris left by the storm. Consultant MWH was appointed by the US Army Corps of Engineers and subsequently the New Orleans Department of Sanitation to project manage debris clearance after Katrina.

MWH debris mission manager Susan Nolan says that strict controls on how FEMA funds are spent is impeding cleanup operations, with more time being spent on paperwork than clearing detritus. 'It's very confusing. The clean-up teams are only allowed to pick up storm debris, not anything that is from reconstruction, such as junk thrown out by people gutting their homes. We spend more time assessing stuff than actually picking it up.' MWH's problems with bureaucracy do not end there. In addition to the debris clearance, the firm has contracts to repair the city's ruptured drinking water and sewer pipes, and to design safehouses at each of the city's pumping stations. It was also appointed to oversee debris and sediment clearance in New Orleans' drainage system on two contracts worth a combined £19M. Work was completed in November, but MWH has yet to receive a cent, following a decision by FEMA to review all contracts awarded immediately after the disaster to prevent corruption. FEMA has estimated the drainage work at the considerably lower gure of £10M. The consultant is appealing FEMA's decision with backing from the City of New Orleans (NCE 20 July).

But despite these setbacks, some progress has been made.

Situated next to MWH's New Orleans office is the Superdome, the world's longest span steel building, which became a byword for the anarchy that engulfed the city immediately after Katrina.

The storm's 200km/h winds ripped two holes measuring 7m long and 3m wide in the roof, allowing rain to drench the 10,000 people sheltering inside.

A crew of 120 roofers began replacing the roof in March, ripping off the damaged cladding and replacing it. They completed their work last month, seven weeks ahead of schedule.

Construction has also begun on a new bridge across Lake Pontchartrain (NCE 20 July). And the city's historic French Quarter continues to attract visitors.

However, when compared to the frenzied construction taking place along the Mississippi gulf city, New Orleans looks like a town overcome with inertia. High rise condominium developments are springing up in Biloxi and Gulfport, which are channelling money raised in new casinos into reconstruction. After the hurricane, Mississippi changed its gambling laws to allow casinos previously forced to operate on barges moored to quaysides to operate on land.

Dempsey says it is unfair to compare New Orleans closely with its Gulf Coast neighbours.

'These towns have simply suffered a 100-year storm, ' she says. 'Investors are happy to go in and rebuild there because it was a rare event. New Orleans, on the other hand, presents investors with a whole different bunch of considerations, because the problems with the levees and the lie of the land.' The Army Corps is replacing destroyed levee sections with sheet piled and concrete flood walls capable of withstanding category five storms. But years of maintenance neglect have left engineers concerned that any future storm surge would simply rush up the canals from Lake Pontchartain, bounce off the newly built sections of levee and smash holes through remaining older sections.

These were only built to resist category three storms, and Army Corps New Orleans chief of engineering Walter Baumy warns they may not even be up to this task.

To provide back up, the Corps has designed steel floodgates, to be built at the lake ends of the London Avenue, 17th Street and Orleans Avenue canals.

Once a storm is forecast, these gates will shut to prevent water being pushed by winds from the lake up the canals.

Unfortunately, even with these impressive structures, the city could flood again tomorrow.

'One of the key points is that you are really not eliminating the risk of flooding, ' says Baumy. 'You're merely minimising it.' New Orleans' waterways are known as outflow canals because their primary function is to allow water to be pumped out of the city, which is below sea level, into Lake Pontchartrain.

Pumps have been installed at the floodgates so that water can continue to be expelled out of the city during a storm. But their capacity will only slow the rate at which New Orleans fl oods.

'When you're talking about the damage that a major hurricane can cause, the damage [from heavy rainwater unable to be pumped out] wouldn't be much.

You're talking maybe a foot or two (300mm-600mm) of water.

Nobody wants to tolerate that but at least the level of flooding has been greatly reduced, ' Baumy states.

During Katrina, the water levels rose to 6.1m in New Orleans. The Corps wants to reconstruct the city's entire hurricane protection system to withstand a category five storm by 2010. Enhancement of the defences will be the final line of protection against future storms, says Army Corps project manager Greg Miller.

'In addition we will start to rebuild the state's coastline, ' says Miller. 'Even before the storm we were losing 25 square miles (64.75km 2) per year and hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged 200 square miles (518km 2) of wetlands. We have to repair that first line of defence, it is so important in absorbing the impact of storm surges at sea.' The Corps is working with consultant Royal Haskoning on its flood defence strategy for the region, and is considering a series of Thames Barrier-like structures at strategic locations along the Gulf coast.

'We are in the very early stages of evaluating all these options, ' says Miller. 'But there is the possibility of federal funding for this.' As to what the future holds for New Orleans, its residents and diaspora await the publishing of the rebuild plan. Sharky says it is likely that some of the damaged areas will be left to become parkland, acting as natural floodplains (NCE 13 October 2005).

'I think it will be 20 years before New Orleans is anywhere near back where it used to be, ' says Dempsey.

Katrina's Legacy New Orleans 24 August 2005: Population - 484,674 Properties using electricity - 190,000; Properties using gas - 145,000 Schools open - 117 Hospitals open - 22 New Orleans 24 August 2006:

Population - 181,400 Properties using electricity - 114,000; Properties using gas - 59,450 Schools open - 33 Hospitals open - 11 Figures taken from the Brookings Institution's 'Katrina Index' August 2006

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