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New Orleans' Floodwalls Remain Vulnerable

After weeks of pumping, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has removed nearly all of the water that flooded heavily populated parts of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But engineers are struggling to shore up heavily damaged levees that could leave the city vulnerable to a future storm.

Corps spokesman John Rickey said Tuesday that just three major pockets of floodwater remain in center city neighborhoods, which once held up to 18 feet of water. Some outer areas remain under up to 6 feet of water, but engineers expect those to be drained by the end of September. In many areas, water levels are dropping by a foot or more per day, as pumps remove up to 7 billion gallons of water a day from the city.

Overall, the Army Corps says it has restored about half of the city's capacity to pump out floodwater -- partly by fixing existing pumps that were damaged by the storm, and partly by bringing in dozens of portable pumps. Some of those portable systems are being run by special teams from Germany and the Netherlands.

Even as the Army Corps "unwatering" team nears it goal of drying out the city, however, a second set of engineers -- dubbed Task Force Guardian -- is nervously eyeing the skies. Their job is to make sure that New Orleans can survive another major storm -- a threat that became all too real this week, as Hurricane Rita headed for the Gulf of Mexico.

Forecasters currently believe Rita will make landfall on the Texas coast far west of New Orleans. But Rickey says that even a few inches of rain could cause big problems in the city due to damaged levees and pumps. "It is a serious concern," he said.

In case a storm hits, the Army Corps is rushing to stockpile sandbags, metal sheets and heavy equipment in key locations. Engineers are also completing repairs on more than a dozen holes that Katrina punched in levees and floodwalls, and inspecting more than 350 miles of defenses for less obvious damage.

"We're getting prepared to weather the next round of bad weather," says Rickey.

In the longer term, Task Force Guardian aims to restore the city's ability to resist a Category 3 hurricane by June of 2006.

Even if Hurricane Rita misses New Orleans as expected, forecasters note that there are still nearly two more months left in this year's hurricane season.

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David Malakoff
Nicknamed "Scoop" in high school, David Malakoff joined NPR in December of 2004 as the technology and science correspondent for NPR’s science desk. His stories about how science and technology impact people’s daily lives can be heard on all NPR news programs.
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