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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 June 2006, 07:11 GMT 08:11 UK
New Orleans braces for hurricane season
By Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC News, New Orleans

Maj Edward Bayouth of the Army Corps of Engineers
Maj Bayouth is confident the city will be protected
The Atlantic hurricane season has started, and recent reports indicate that New Orleans is not fully ready.

The studies suggest the city's levee system would not be able to prevent a repeat of last year's flooding if another Katrina-strength storm hits.

On Royal Street in New Orleans, one man is still singing the Katrina Blues.

"I'm talking about the rain/Rain kept on coming down. Now here comes the wind/Now we gotta leave this town," sang bluesman Stony B.

"The B is for broke," he said - and he laughed when I asked him if New Orleans was ready for the next hurricane season.

"Is it ready for the next one? It ain't recovered from the first one," he said.

"If another hurricane just like Katrina came through here, there is nothing these people could do to stop what happened, happening again."

Repairs 'inadequate'

But they will be trying, which is why Louisiana officials have tested their response to fictional Hurricane Alicia.
Click to see subsidence in New Orleans - and area of flooding

Drills were given added urgency by new academic reports suggesting the repair work on the city's defences has been inadequate.

The author of one of them is Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University.

"There are so many sections of the levee that are weakened," he warned.

"And in addition some of the repairs haven't been covered with the required protection to stop them eroding, so as much as they have been rebuilt, they will erode again if we get another big storm."

He painted a frightening picture of a worst-case scenario: "We get a slow-moving category three or more, it totally floods the whole of New Orleans, and in essence we are left with the Cajun Atlantis."

Gates in place

The organisation responsible for securing New Orleans' flood defences is the much-criticised US Army Corps of Engineers.

At the entrance to the city's 17th street canal they have installed huge floodgates.

Anti-ACE sign on an abandoned building in New Orleans
Many in New Orleans are angry at the Army Corps of Engineers

I put it to Maj Edward Bayouth that despite his efforts, New Orleans is still a very vulnerable place.

"I don't believe that at all," he replied.

"If we have the same Katrina storm that we had last year, we have the gated structures that will prevent the backflow into the city, so we believe we are protected from storm surge.

"We built the levees of better material, they're higher, they're stronger. I think the city will be ready. The city will be ready."

Second opinion?

But with the Corps of Engineers' analysis of what caused last year's flooding also in dispute, it is not just the speed of their work, but its emphasis which is being questioned.

The worst-case scenario is that we get a slow-moving category three or more, it totally floods the whole of New Orleans - and in essence we are left with the Cajun Atlantis
Ivor van Heerden,
Louisiana State University

For the local congressman, Republican Bobby Jindal, what is needed is an urgent, independent assessment of the repairs.

"If you were to go to a physician and he or she recommended serious surgery, you would want to get a second opinion," he said.

"Well, we are talking about billions of dollars of construction, we're talking about protecting tens of thousands of lives.

"It's only prudent to get a second opinion to make sure this work is being done properly.

"I don't think it's reasonable to ask people to put their property or their lives potentially in harm's way if we can't give them the best assurances they will be safe."

Risky investment

But Jonathan Nemeth could probably do without those cast-iron assurances.

Abandoned house and car in New Orleans
Jonathan Nemeth's neighbourhood still needs work

He is the newest - and currently the only - resident of a street which ends at what was the Ground Zero of the flooding last year: The spot along the 17th Street canal that was breached.

He bought a house 50m from where the levee was breached and the city flooded, started renovations about two months ago, and moved in five weeks ago.

For him, this is not a street full of deserted rubble-filled houses, uprooted trees and abandoned schoolbuses - but a good investment.

"Every good investment has a risk. That's the risk involved here."

Some people would think he is mad, I suggested.

"Maybe with a little bit of luck, we won't have a storm," he said, adding that he hoped all the flood repairs would be completed by next year.

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