WASHINGTON – 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.
Ernesto, the fifth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, was considered likely to have hurricane force as it moved across Cuba and aimed at Florida.
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.
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.
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."
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said the city was ready — but only to evacuate.
"You will never see a replay of last year, as long as I'm the mayor of the city," he said Sunday. "It's the storm surge that's really the major concern. ... We don't expect the catastrophic failures."
Contradicting other Bush administration officials, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the U.S. Army Corps' chief, conceded it isn't clear whether the levees could withstand a big hurricane this year.
"To pinpoint it to one thing and say 'yes' or 'no' is very difficult," he told reporters Saturday.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco, appearing at a news conference with Strock in New Orleans, said she's unhappy with the current strength of the levee system, but believes as much work as possible was done on it in the year since Katrina.
FEMA, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, should not take all the heat for the problems after Katrina, said Michael Brown, who resigned under intense pressure last September as director of the agency.
"There was a complete breakdown of government" at all levels, Brown said Sunday. But, he also acknowledged, "Of course I failed."
But Brown, who criticized the White House for trying to put a rosy spin on its handling of Katrina and for making him the fall guy for its failings, said he's not sure if New Orleans is ready for another big storm.
Asked whether Brown was made a scapegoat, Powell said he didn't think it was productive to look back. He said money has been committed to rebuild the Gulf Coast.
Only $44 billion of the $110 billion designated for the massive rebuilding project has been spent so far to help get the battered region back on its feet.
Powell made these comments on "FOX News Sunday" and ABC's "This Week," while Brown appeared on ABC. Nagin, Paulison were on NBC's "Meet the Press," Landrieu on ABC's "This Week."