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August 30, 2005

Then again —
Posted by Patrick at 07:57 AM * 33 comments

— we may have breathed a sigh of relief for NO too soon:

A large section of the vital 17th Street Canal levee, where it connects to the brand new “hurricane proof” Old Hammond Highway bridge, gave way late Monday morning in Bucktown after Katrina’s fiercest winds were well north. The breach sent a churning sea of water from Lake Pontchartrain coursing across Lakeview and into Mid-City, Carrollton, Gentilly, City Park and neighborhoods farther south and east.

As night fell on a devastated region, the water was still rising in the city, and nobody was willing to predict when it would stop. […]

The effect of the breach was instantly devastating to residents who had survived the fiercest of Katrina’s winds and storm surge intact, only to be taken by surprise by the sudden deluge. And it added a vast swath of central New Orleans to those already flooded in eastern New Orleans, the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes.

Beginning at midday, Lakeview residents watched in horror as the water began to rise, pushed through the levee breach by still-strong residual winds from Katrina. They struggled to elevate furniture and eventually found themselves forced to the refuge of second floors just when most in the neighborhood thought they had been spared.

“It would have been fine,” refugee Pat O’Brien said. “The eye passed over.” But his relief was short-lived. “It’s like what you see on TV and never thought would happen to us. We lost everything: cars, art, furniture, everything.” […]

“We were good until the canal busted,” Sontag said. “First there was water on the street, then the sidewalk, then water in the house.” […] In Lakeview, the scene was surreal. A woman yelled to reporters from a rooftop, asking them to call her father and tell him she was OK, although fleeing to the roof of a two-story home hardly seemed to qualify.

About 5 p.m., almost as if on cue, the battery power of all the house alarms in the neighborhood seemed to reach a critical level, and they all went off, making it sound as if the area was under an air-raid warning. Two men surviving on generator power in the Lake Terrace neighborhood near the Lake Pontchartrain levee still had a dry house, but they were watching the rising water in the yard nervously. They were planning to head out to retrieve a vast stash of beer, champagne and hard liquor they found washed onto the levee. As night fell, the sirens of house alarms finally fell silent, and the air filled with a different, deafening and unfamiliar sound: the extraordinary din of thousands of croaking frogs.

There seems to be some ambiguity in the national press about when the levee actually broke. CNN says it happened “overnight”. An AP report quoted in the New York Times says it “gave way Monday afternoon.” The local report quoted above says “late Monday morning.” One suspects a certain unfamiliarity with the way floods develop, plus of course the problem of getting up-to-the-second accurate news out of a place that’s in the process of undergoing a world-class catastrophe.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin confirmed the breach in a local TV interview. City fire officials said the break was about 200 feet long in the levee surrounding the 17th Street Canal.

“My heart is heavy tonight,” Nagin said in the interview on WWL-TV. “I don’t have any good news to share.

“The city of New Orleans is in a state of devastation. We probably have 80 percent of our city underwater. With some sections of our city, the water is as deep as 20 feet.”

Here’s a diagram that very crisply diagrams New Orleans’s extraordinary vulnerability. (This, linked to earlier by Teresa, features even more neighborhood-specific information.)

Comments on Then again --:
#1 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 08:37 AM:

You don't plug a 200' levee gap. You can't even cofferdam around it. 200' x 10' = a 2000 square foot wall of water pouring in. Until the flow stops, you can't really repair it. It's exactly like trying to stop the tide.

Worse: Backside soaking. That water's heading clear across the city, and ponding up against the Mississippi river levees. That attacks the base and foot of levees and seawalls -- it was a real problem in 1993, we had a strict rule of "pump, now!" at any sign of leakage, to keep the levees and sandbag walls from collapsing as the earth underneath turned to goo.

No power, limited reserves on the pumps to keep the city dry. That water is going to sit for a long time -- and now, every little thunderstorm that comes by is a major threat, until the seal that levee and get the pumps dry.

The Corps of Engineers has gear, but they're fighting to get to the breach. Losing the Twin Span Bridge is a big deal, as well.

The causeway is currently cleared for emergency vehicles, but I don't know if they can risk heavy construction gear yet.

As to the ambuiguity. It's rare for a levee to just pop -- usually, that takes explosives (a tactic, in big floods -- blow the levee protecting farmlands to save the city.) It may well have started leaking, slowly, yesterday, and the water carved it wider. Now, it just isn't a levee anymore.

#2 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 08:39 AM:

I just heard the news from Mom, who heard it from Dad, who's still holed up at Touro Hospital.

I have nothing useful to add. Stay safe, everyone.

#3 ::: Anna Feruglio Dal Dan ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 08:58 AM:

That was my thought too this morning. I just saw the whole interview to the NO mayor. Damn.

#4 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 09:05 AM:

*insert several minutes of profanity here*

Really. That's all I can think of to say.

#5 ::: Anna Feruglio Dal Dan ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 09:06 AM:

In case anybody wants to watch it in its entirety, here's the Nagin interview. I know I saw portions aired on CNN but not the whole thing. I'm hoping the link isn't going to breaks the comments.

"They have seen bodies floating in the water."
"Who has seen them?"
"Where have they seen them?"

Etc. etc.

#6 ::: David Bilek ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 09:18 AM:

This is purportedly a photograph of the levee breach, taken from over the lake:

#7 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 09:20 AM:

Wow, David, that looks much further away from downtown than I'd realized. At about 7am this morning, the Today Show reported about 1-2 ft. of water on the streets closer to toe French Quarter.

#8 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 11:21 AM:

Blocking that gap is going to be hard.

It isn't impossible. It might take extreme measures, right up to scuttling a barge in the canal.

Ask the Dutch.

#9 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 11:53 AM:

You realize this only happened because some said the words "hurricane proof"

My grandmother took this time to visit relatives in Michigan, (Thank God)

Keep safe all.

#10 ::: Charles Dodgson ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 12:29 PM:

Latest is that they're going to try to airlift in large sandbags to stem the breach (1350 kg, about one ton). That's a whole lotta sandbags.

Even the media have seen the better part of valor; the most recent post on the Times-Picayune's breaking news blog (datelined) 9:40 AM describes the route their caravan is trying to take out of town. Most of the TV stations were already broadcasting from elsewhere, I think.

I keep thinking it's like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Except that it's more like watching neighborhoods of a major city get washed away in slow motion...

#11 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 12:30 PM:

Am I a bad person for finding it amusing that this guy's appeal for help is self-inflictedly less likely to receive an answer (by at least fifty percent)?

Probably so, yeah, so I won't note the brand name of the generator.

#12 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 02:00 PM:

"Probably so, yeah, so I won't note the brand name of the generator."

I wonder if his Cummings generator runs an Onan pump

#13 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 02:11 PM:

I already feel a little bad about picking at the guy. He's over his head in a bad situation, and he made (in my opinion) an unwise statement that could make it worse. I could've done that.

Of course, in a Heinlein novel, some competent woman would've shot him, then spent the rest of the disaster having sex in the bunker, so it could've been worse.

Speaking of whiches, is anyone as reminded of Leiber's The Wanderer as I am?

#14 ::: metairieboy ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 02:35 PM:

Anyone know about Metairie at the Kenner line and the canal there. Flooding?

#15 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 02:35 PM:

It must be getting bad. In the last few minutes, I've seen "martial law" misspelled on both the WWL website (broadcast journalists, right) and the NOLA website.

When print journalists are making that mistake, they're rattled.

#16 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 02:37 PM:

Ah, I misunderstood Charles Dodgson; I thought he meant a total of 1350 kgs of sandbags (which isn't much), when it's really 1350 kgs *per* sandbag. Those are pretty big bags; I suspect each one might be about a cubic meter, or a cubic yard to those used to buying construction materials in the US.

#17 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 02:38 PM:

The Kenner W*l-M*rt Supercenter is open, if that tells you anything. (I used to know and work with some of the field engineers that maintained that store.)

#18 ::: metairieboy ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 02:41 PM:

thx adamsj -- it's not too far west from my family's home on Robeline Street near Power Blvd. (about one block away from the levee)

#19 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 03:13 PM:

Oh, good luck to them! Here's the NOLA forum for Kenner--you may find more here. You might post there, too.

#20 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 04:23 PM:

OK, I admit up front that this is a crackpot idea, based on bits of stuff I remember.

NOLA is the biggest grain port in the world -- while they may have stopped barges upstream they probably aren't too far off. The barges may or may not fit down the canal, but it does not matter. Pull several up to the mouth of the canal on Lake Ponch and just dump them. You will need to line up several barges at once because what you are trying to do is create a block in that canal like cheap toilet paper in a bad toilet. The trick to this (in my fevered dreams) is that most grain, especially rice slowly swells up on contact with water. As soon as you manage to form a leaky plug, then pile the plastic and sandbags on the side toward the lake. Repeat as necessary.

I understand that there are problems with this. Ponch is not generally considered navigable (I think) and getting both tugs and barges around may not be feasible. It may be better to drag smaller ones through the canal from the Mississippi side. (That idea, of course, has its own risk -- bumping the side of an overloaded canal levee with a loaded barge is probably not a good thing.) There are probably dozens of good reasons why this will not work. But it has been sticking in my head since yesterday evening when I heard about the further breaks.

There, now I feel better. Feel free to return to the real world.

#21 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 04:47 PM:

Hey, I like it Claude!

Just think: You could keep hundreds of trigger-happy potential troublemakers employed shooting birds who attempt to peck away at the grain dike.

#23 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 07:59 PM:

Maybe it's time to let the Mississippi have its way. Make a Newer Orleans away from the coast.

#24 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 09:16 PM:

Less than 48 hours later, and the looters are shooting the police.

New Orleans is already under martial law - it sounds like the police could use some National Guard backup.

So it's just too bad that 1/3 of the Louisiana National Guard is currently in Iraq, protecting us from WMDs.

People are now dying here at home as a direct consequence of Bush's foreign policy disasters.

#25 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2005, 10:02 PM:

Claude: Rice has to get hot to swell much (which is why flinging it at weddings is perfectly harmless.

#26 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 02:52 AM:

I think people are remembering one of Horatio Hornblower's little adventures with a cargo of rice.

As far as I can see, only the Industrial Canal connects to the Mississippee. Why the dead-end canals are there, I don't know.

#27 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 05:30 AM:

I think people are remembering one of Horatio Hornblower's little adventures with a cargo of rice.

Always the same excuse; "they didn't know it was loaded."

#28 ::: Bry Anne ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 11:20 AM:

The dead end canals are for drainage of the streets.

#29 ::: Kate Yule ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 07:31 PM:

Can anyone explain to me how/why there's a city in that particular location in the first place? Presumably the Watery Sword of Damocles wasn't so blatantly dangling from the rafters when settlement started, and then the next generations lived there because "we've always lived here". But if that's it, what changed?

#30 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2005, 07:40 PM:

Kate, the Army Corps of Engineers built levees up & down the Mississippi, which meant there wasn't as much dirt carried by the river to replenish the delta and wetlands. Essentially, we've spent a lot of money trying to keep New Orleans and other cities dry.

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