Urgent Repairs In New Orleans

A construction worker stands on what is left of the walls of the 17th Street Canael levee in New Orleans, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2005. The neighborhood behind the walls in Orleans Parish sustained some of the worst damage with entire homes being swept away. (AP Photo/Herald News, Ryan Mercer) AP

As rain from Hurricane Rita threatened to once again flood the city, residents were forced to decide yet again whether to stay or go. The Army Corps of Engineers was racing to patch New Orleans' fractured levee system.

The storm that swiped Florida on Tuesday strengthened into a Category 5 and is expected to hit Texas by the end of the week. But a slight turn to the right was possible and engineers feared additional rain could swamp the city's levees.

With Hurricane Rita preparing to pound the Gulf Coast, there's new urgency to repairing New Orleans' levees, damaged three weeks ago by Katrina's floodwaters, reports CBS News Correspondent Randall Pinkston.

The Army Corps of Engineers said New Orleans levees can only handle up to 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet.

"The protection is very tenuous at best," said Dave Wurtzel, the Corps official responsible for repairing the 17th Street Canal levee, whose huge breach during Katrina caused the worst of the floods.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives approved a $6.1 billion package of tax breaks Wednesday to help families recover from Hurricane Katrina and encourage Gulf Coast businesses to reopen their doors, or at least keep employees on the payroll.

The House passed the bill 422-0, sending the bill to the Senate, where lawmakers hoped to quickly give their final approval. The package offers tax assistance to people and businesses dislocated by Hurricane Katrina and expanded tax breaks for some charitable donations to help them.

CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller reports that President Bush has issued emergency declarations for Texas and Louisiana in advance of Hurricane Rita, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and The Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate all disaster relief efforts.

Back in New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin estimated that 400 to 500 residents were left in the city. The city plans to start to re-enforce the evacuation order Wednesday, he said. He did not give specifics on how the order will be enforced.

To people who refuse to leave, Nagin had this message: "We're all adults. We really don't want to take people out by gunpoint. We hope they see the threat ... and obey the law."

CBS News Correspondent Cami McCormick reports hundreds of buses are standing by to evacuate people, enough food and water for 500,000 people has been brought in by the military, and a field hospital has been set up at the Convention Center, where so many people were left with nothing during Hurricane Katrina.

"We are praying that the hurricane dissipates or that it weakens," said Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who declared a state of emergency. "This state can barely stand what happened to it."

The death toll from Katrina in the state rose to 799, pushing the overall toll across the Gulf Coast states past the 1,000 milestone — to 1,036.

Searchers smashed through doors in New Orleans on Wednesday, bringing their hunt for the dead to homes that had been locked and to blocks hardest hit by Katrina's flooding. Behind those doors, officials said they expected a sharply escalating body count — among them, more children.

"There still could be quite a few, especially in the deepest flooded areas," said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jeffrey Pettitt, who is overseeing the retrieval of bodies. "Some of the houses, they haven't been in yet."

In anticipation of another hurricane, the Corps drove a massive metal barrier across the 17th Street Canal bed to prevent a storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain from swamping New Orleans again.

Fearing another levee break, some National Guard units have pulled out of the city, reports Pinkston.

Government engineers and private contractors also worked around the clock across New Orleans to repair the damage to the system of pumps, concrete floodwalls, earthen berms and canals that protect the below-sea-level city.

In addition, the corps had 800 giant sandbags weighing 6,000 to 15,000 pounds on hand just in case, and ordered 2,500 more to shore up low spots and plug any new breaches.

  • Scott Benjamin

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