Debate: Is New Orleans Storm-Ready?

Sections of the new flood gates are lowered in the London Ave. Canal during a demonstration in New Orleans Sat. Aug. 26, 2006. The gates once in place will reduce the strain on the levee walls from surges of water from Lake Pontchartrain driven into the canal by storms. The levees along the canal failed during Hurricane Katrina and contributed to the flooding of New Orleans. (AP Photo/Bill Haber) AP Photo

Federal emergency officials claim the New Orleans levee system is ready for another major hurricane, despite the less-optimistic views of other political leaders and engineers.

"I think we're in good shape," Don Powell, the Bush administration's coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, said Sunday. "There's no question in my mind, we're ready."

The levees failed after Hurricane Katrina, a Category 4 storm, roared ashore a year ago, flooding the city of New Orleans. The levees were built to withstand a Category 3 storm; the highest level is a Category 5.

Whether the city is ready or not could be tested soon by Hurricane Ernesto, the first of the Atlantic season, with winds of 75 mph that could grow into a Category 3 hurricane by Thursday. The storm was projected to make landfall in Haiti on Sunday and to bring rain and wind to southern Florida by early Tuesday.

Visitors were ordered to leave the Florida Keys on Sunday.

"We are ready for a hurricane regardless of where it's going to hit," said David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Paulison told Bob Schieffer on CBS's Face The Nation Sunday that FEMA has been working very closely with Louisiana to make sure "they have good, solid evacuation plans in place."

"We all know, as the governor said earlier, that people cannot ride out these storms in a travel trailer or a mobile home, they have to be evacuated," Paulison said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which says it repaired and reinforced 220 miles of levee walls, has been closely monitoring the storm, which could hit soon after Tuesday's anniversary of Katrina.

"I believe that the levees are ready for hurricane season," Powell said. The levees are back to where they were pre-Katrina, and they're on their way to being the best, better and stronger then they have ever been."

But officials on the ground — including the head of the U.S. Army Corps — were more skeptical.

The Corps said Saturday it had done all it could to repair and reinforce 220 miles of levee walls, but that many variables would determine whether the levees could withstand a major hurricane striking near New Orleans, as Katrina did Aug. 29, 2005.

"Well, I don't know if — whether they'd hold or not. It really doesn't matter, because that whole area's an evacuation zone, and people should evacuate if they're asked to evacuate," Paulison told Schieffer.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said the levee repairs alone aren't enough. "They're back up to Category 3," she said. "We need to get them up to Category 5, and we are working to do that."

  • James Klatell

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