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Engineers Face Mammoth Challenge

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

The effort to get the water out of New Orleans is being hampered by security concerns and by problems with communications. Workers also face serious technical challenges. The breaches in flood walls that need to be repaired are, like much else, surrounded by water. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

Colonel Richard Wagenaar is at one of the dry spots in New Orleans, the US Army Corps of Engineers' emergency operations center, what he calls ground zero. Wagenaar is leading operations in the field. He has 30 people sleeping on cots. During the day they go out to survey the damage of the city's water defenses. But cell phones don't work; neither do their satellite phones.

Colonel RICHARD WAGENAAR (US Army Corps of Engineers): The biggest thing is just trying to coordinate something. You know, when I call the state and say, `I need a helicopter,' and they say, `OK, where do you want it?' and I say, `Here,' and then we try to go there and it's under water so you have to go somewhere else. And then you can't call them to change the location. And, you know, you just can't--I have no communications with my employees that are working around New Orleans right now.

KESTENBAUM: When teams go out he makes them take 10 gallons of drinking water with them, and he doesn't let people go out alone. Our interview was interrupted by a warning that people were coming up a nearby bike path.

Col. WAGENAAR: Well, there are civilians now that have just walked up to my fence, and they're sitting outside my fence. But, I don't know, it's--I had people in a boat yesterday trying to deliver pumps to the Superdome, and people were shooting at them as they were going by in the boat. Now, you know, I'm pretty open-minded, but I can't at all understand how someone could be shooting at a boat trying to deliver emergency supplies.

KESTENBAUM: Wagenaar says he's not sending people out at night, and he's had to establish what he called rules of engagement.

Col. WAGENAAR: They're not allowed to stop for anyone, unless it's a law enforcement official that's signaling them to stop. They're not allowed to stop for flat tires. They must proceed on to the nearest police checkpoint.

KESTENBAUM: Most of the water in the city came from breaches along canals that run through town. Those breaches are surrounded by deep water. The plan yesterday was to try to drop sandbags in by helicopter to patch the 17th Street canal, but the helicopters had to be used for rescue operations. Al Naomi, a senior project manger with the Corps, says the plan is now to build crude gravel roads so workers can drive to the breached sections.

Mr. AL NAOMI (US Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager): They can drop the sandbags in with helicopter, but you can't be sure where the sandbags are going, and you can't be sure if there's voids where they're dropping. There may be holes, you know. All these things are some concern because we want to make sure this breach is sealed solid.

KESTENBAUM: The 17th Street canal is used to carry water out of the city into the lake. Before the pumps get turned on again, Naomi says engineers want to inspect the wall. They don't want them to break somewhere else. I asked Naomi what percent of the city he thought was dry. Like everything else, that's a hard question to answer.

Mr. NAOMI: Oh, I would say maybe 50 or 60, but that's just a wild-ass guess. I mean, I don't really know. I talked to one of our engineers who arrived at our headquarters down in New Orleans yesterday, and she drove across Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. She went and saw her house in Metairie and checked it out. Then she drove to the district headquarters. And I asked her, `Well, how did you do that?' She said, `Well, I just drove. Everything's--all the water's gone.'

KESTENBAUM: The situation is terrible, he says, but watching TV you get the sense that everything is every water, and that's not the case. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And you can learn more about the city's levee problems and what it'll take to fix them and see a map of the breaches at our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Kestenbaum
David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.