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SPECIAL REPORT FROM LOUISIANA // Fix the levees first

It's all about the levees.

Six months after Katrina, a veneer of normalcy has returned to New Orleans' tourist areas: Mother's restaurant is again dishing up its famous breakfast grits and overstuffed Po-boys, Harrods casino is back humming with nearly every slot machine engaged 'round-the-clock, and the krewes of Mardi Gras are again parading near the patched-up French Quarter.

But until the levee and coastal protection system is improved substantially, this region will not truly recover. As Dr. James Aiken, a Louisiana State University emergency-medicine doctor, said of his medical colleagues who left in advance of Katrina and have not returned, "until the city's safe to live in, people won't be coming back."

There are 350 miles of levees in the region and, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 170 miles received some level of damage. The corps has the primary duty to design, construct and maintain the federal levee system and is racing to have all damage repaired before June 1, the start of hurricane season. Yet it is clear from local officials and residents that just bringing the coastal protection system back to pre-Katrina levels is not good enough. The next "hundred-year storm" could be just months away, and the corps must do much better this time.

To the corps' credit, it is using a far stronger levee design known as the "inverted T wall" during its repairs in some places. This construction adds diagonal steel piles behind the flood wall to anchor it. And while the corps has been criticized for using substandard soil in reconstructing the berms, it insists that the replacement soil is constantly tested to ensure a significant proportion of clay for enhanced strength. The corps says that 5-million cubic yards of clay matter will be installed during the repairs.

Where the corps has missed the boat is in not armoring all the levees. When water overtopped some of the region's floodwalls, the water scoured the opposite side, weakening the walls' support and causing them to collapse. By reinforcing the soil with impervious materials, the walls would better withstand the onslaught of water. Getting on that right away is one of the recommendations made by the External Review Panel of the American Society of Civil Engineers, a group charged with reviewing the ongoing work of the corps. The corps says it doesn't have the authorization or money it needs from Congress. Well, Congress and the corps need to get moving.

In the longer term, there is a consensus for a comprehensive coastal protection plan that includes substantial restoration of area wetlands, the building of canal sluice gates that would provide a shield against a storm surge, the installation of storm-proof pumping stations and the re-engineering and rebuilding of much of the rest of the levee system with enough strength to withstand a Category 5 storm. While the new pumps and sluice gates can be constructed immediately, the other measures are going to take more analysis and discussion. All this needs to happen, though, if south Louisiana is to make a reasonably full recovery.

A rebuilding project of this magnitude is primarily a federal responsibility. When devastating natural disasters hit the United States, we have a collective responsibility to respond, particularly for an area like New Orleans that means so much to this country economically and culturally. Moreover, Louisiana took an important step recently by consolidating its dozens of crony-laden levee boards into two regional boards that are to be filled by knowledgeable professionals. By starting to get its own house in order, Louisiana is demonstrating that it can be a responsible partner.

Maybe not all of the Katrina-hit region should come back - that debate is ongoing - but for residents to confidently rebuild in those areas that should return, they need to know that all has been done to protect their property and their lives. That means strengthening the levees has to come first.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 170 of the 350 miles of levees in the region were damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The corps is trying to repair all the breaches before the beginning of hurricane season, but says it doesn't have the authorization or money it needs from Congress to armor all the levees.

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