Friday, September 23, 2005

Hurricane Rita hits New Orleans: When the levees break... again

As if Katrina weren't enough, the worst-hit areas of New Orleans are once again under water, as a key levee that protects some of the lower lying areas of the city, including the Lower Ninth Ward:

The force of approaching Hurricane Rita has torn through levees still under repair for damage from Hurricane Katrina 24 days ago, sending water cascading into the hardest-hit neighborhoods of the city this morning, quickly submerging cars and flooding empty homes wrested from their foundations.

The storm ripped new breaches in at least five spots that engineers had recently repaired, inundating neighborhoods that were only now being drained of Katrina's flooding...

One break in the levee was in the lower Ninth Ward, on the east side of the canal. The storm sent the water rising so quickly that it had reached windows of houses up to three blocks east of the levee by late morning. Dozens of blocks in New Orleans's Ninth Ward were under water.

A second breach was found later in the Upper Ninth Ward, on the west side of the levee. More breaches developed later.

Officials from the Army Corps said the second breach, unlike the first, is not endangering lives or property, since most residents have evacuated and the property there is already ruined. The breaches confirmed the city's fears - that its weakened levee system, damaged by Katrina, could not protect it against a tidal surge along Lake Pontchartrain. By late morning, the lake waters were two feet above where they had been, and flood waters in New Orleans, which had been receding, were starting to rise again. St. Bernard Parish had about two more feet of water than it did days ago.

Fortunately, the low-lying areas of the Lower Ninth Ward had been mostly evacuated and 95 to 98 percent of the area had been checked for survivors and cleared, said Dave Wheeler, operations chief of FEMA's urban search and rescue team in New Orleans."It's already been destroyed," he said. "It's a good thing virtually all of New Orleans is empty. Hopefully there's a minimal chance that anyone will be stranded." Many of the houses in the area had already been declared uninhabitable and slated for demolition.

The Times-Picayune continues to provide excellent hurricane coverage. See here for the latest updates on developments in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana.

Said Major Barry Guidry, a National Guardsman on duty at the Ninth Ward levee: "Our worst fears came true."

More from CNN:

"It's spreading rapidly down to the south-southeast, so they're going to have complete flooding in that area again," Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell told CNN. Caldwell, commander of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, said floodwater had spread across 30 to 40 city blocks by noon.

CNN photojournalist Alfredo DeLara echoed his observations. "We're talking 5 to 10 inches in the one to two minutes we were standing in this one spot," he said. "There's nothing stopping that water from just pouring in."

"The Army Corps of Engineers placed a lot of sand here with helicopters, with earthmoving equipment, and tried to shore it up. But it looks like it didn't hold," he said.

According to the National Hurricane Center, as much as 3 inches of rain could fall on New Orleans when Hurricane Rita sweeps across the Gulf Coast. The Army Corps of Engineers has said that may overwhelm the fragile levee system.

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