Despite aggressive efforts to repair the New Orleans levee system following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, it isn't clear yet whether it could withstand a hurricane with heavy storm surge this year, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers conceded Saturday.
Lt. Gen. Carl Strock said the agency was carefully tracking Hurricane Ernesto, which was in the Caribbean and projected to reach hurricane strength Tuesday. It was on track to enter the Gulf of Mexico, but it too early to tell whether it would strike the southern United States.
Strock was confident the Corps had done all it could to repair and reinforce 220 miles of levee walls, but he said many variables would determine whether the levees could withstand a major hurricane striking near New Orleans, as Katrina did Aug. 29, 2005.
"To pinpoint it to one thing and say 'yes' or 'no' is very difficult," said Strock.
Much would depend on where the hurricane made landfall, wind speed, rainfall and other factors, he said. The biggest concern would be water levels so high that they could cascade over the levee walls, weakening them to the point of breaching.
Ernesto attracted the public's attention during a weekend of events marking the anniversary of Katrina. Driving rain soaked people gathered outside the Superdome for one observance, but the storms were not related to Ernesto.
Bari Landry, who lives in a New Orleans neighborhood heavily flooded by Katrina, said that after seeing Ernesto's possible storm track she decided to reserve a hotel room in Houston for Thursday through Saturday.
"There may be panic, but we know the drill," she said.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco said state officials were keeping an eye on Ernesto.
"It's critical we make the right call for the right reason," she said, cautioning that they want to ward off the chance of unnecessary evacuations.
Officials of the state, city and 14 parishes planned to talk by conference call, New Orleans Homeland Security chief Terry Ebbert said.
Mandatory evacuation in the parishes below New Orleans would kick in when the storm was 50 hours from the coast, Ebbert said. New Orleans would begin mandatory evacuation at the 40-hour mark.
New Orleans already has buses and trains under contract to evacuate people without the means to leave, he said.
Strock appeared with Blanco and Donald Powell, chairman of President Bush's Gulf Coast rebuilding office, on Saturday at a news conference to show off new protections since Katrina, including flood gates that can be dropped into the mouths of three large canals to reduce the effect of water surging out of Lake Ponchartrain.
However, some of the most substantial work planned on the levee system won't be done for the next couple of years.
Col. Richard Wagenaar, who oversees the New Orleans district of the Corps, said the flood control system, which was breached in three places after Katrina, was equal to or better than it was when Katrina struck, but he said he and his staff had already begun making preparations for Ernesto.
Wagenaar said he would have to weigh all the risks in any decision to close the flood gates. When they are closed, it takes longer to pump rain water out of the city's low-lying areas, creating risks of rain flooding.
Blanco said that although she is not happy with the current strength of the levee system, she believes as much work as possible has been done in the year since Katrina.
"I will feel better when they are fully functional and complete, but it will take time," Blanco said. "We've gotten as far as we could get in one year."