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Engineers Press On with Levee Repairs


As troops are mobilizing to rescue victims and get food and water to survivors, engineers are working to fix the levees in New Orleans. The US Army Corps of Engineers is coordinating the project from an office in Vicksburg, Mississippi, with the help of others in Memphis and St. Louis. Al Naomi is senior project manager for the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers. He says workers right now are trying to navigate the flooded terrain to get to the gaps in the levee.

Mr. AL NAOMI (US Army Corps of Engineers): That is a major task since access points are very difficult to get to when you have flooded streets. So they're working primarily to close off the canals and then develop access points so they can get in and do the final repairs on those breaches, so we can get the pump stations started.

ELLIOTT: What will they do once they reach the breaches?

Mr. NAOMI: Well, what they're doing is they're going to be filling it with material, composite rot material that will fill in all the voids so that they're actually constructing an earthen embankment to get out to the site so they can just fill in the site of the breach with materials to seal it off.

ELLIOTT: Will it not, though, hold water in the city that might need to come out?

Mr. NAOMI: Well, actually, the water is still draining out there and--but what we've got to do is close that breach off because the best way to get water out of the city is the big pumping stations that are there and those pumping stations are waiting for this breach to be closed so they can kick the power on and let them start pumping. Once that occurs, the water will go down far more rapidly than allowing these drains through the breaches.

ELLIOTT: Is there any way of knowing when that might happen?

Mr. NAOMI: No, because we're not quite certain how deep the hole is, how deep the water is at that particular location that we're working our way out to. But we're just going to keep working at it until it's filled. It's not a question of can we do it; it's just a question of what's--it's a matter of time. And when we get it filled, they can start that pump station.

ELLIOTT: You know, officials have known that this was a vulnerable issue for Louisiana and for New Orleans in particular.

Mr. NAOMI: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: And plans were under way to solve that problem. What happened?

Mr. NAOMI: Well, just--these projects, these big projects, it takes years to get something of that complexity and cost started and there was no way that could have been done in time to prevent this. We started that effort--that was authorized in 1999 and some of these big projects would take up to 15 to 20 years to complete. So there was no way that we could have gotten it completed in time.

ELLIOTT: Was there enough funding there to actually start the project in the first place?

Mr. NAOMI: Well, we can't start it. We have to do a study and the study is what's important. And even if the--you know, funding wasn't so much of an issue, it's just a question of timing, then you could have thrown $100 million at the study and you wouldn't have had it completed any earlier or in time to prevent this from happening.

ELLIOTT: Al Naomi is senior project manager for the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Thanks for being with us, Mr. Naomi.

Mr. NAOMI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.