New Orleans' levees held – this time

New Orleans may have dodged a bullet – or maybe a big cascading wall of water – but Hurricane Gustav's near-miss showed how vulnerable this low-lying city remains.

As city, state and federal officials began their post-storm assessments amid a hazy, occasionally rainy Tuesday, levee experts cautioned that New Orleans has a long way to go before residents can feel secure that their homes will be there after the next hurricane evacuation.

“Had the storm surge been 1 or 2 feet higher, with the wind whipping like it was, the water would have been pouring over those floodwalls, not sloshing over,” said Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer who's studied the levees. “In the Industrial Canal, those floodwalls were indeed tested, and I hope they don't have to be tested again.”

The Industrial Canal is a ship-and-barge navigation channel in the eastern part of the city. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the storm surge brought water to the tops of the concrete walls that separate the canal from neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward. When the water ran over the tops, it undermined the floodwalls, cracking a section wide open and inundating that part of New Orleans. Similar failures occurred elsewhere.

Since then, a stronger, better-designed floodwall has replaced the broken section. But that added protection doesn't extend all along the canal. As Gustav approached, Army Corps of Engineers officials scrambled to add sandbags to one section of the floodwall that they'd determined might be weak.

The canal, where water rose 91/2feet in 12 hours, may have been within less than a foot of overflowing, said Maj. Timothy Kurgan of the Army Corps of Engineers.

“We were close,” he said. “And there's nothing you can do. You just have to let the storm pass.”

What about next time?

The corps is in the midst of a $15 billion project that includes addressing dozens of hot spots among the 325 miles of levees and floodwalls that protect New Orleans. The massive enterprise is 20 percent finished and is scheduled for completion in 2011.

Among the key projects is to place barriers on two navigation channels that feed water – including hurricane storm surges – into the Industrial Canal. Once those barriers are in place, the canal will be far less likely to fill with water as it did Monday.

“If Gustav came next year, you would not have seen that surge in the canal,” Kurgan said.