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Originally published Friday, August 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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New Orleans levee update still not done

The levees that ring New Orleans have been substantially fortified since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the Crescent City is far from protected...

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — The levees that ring New Orleans have been substantially fortified since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the Crescent City is far from protected if Gustav or another large storm were to hit before 2011.

Since Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been reinforcing and repairing the 325 miles of levees and floodwalls that protect New Orleans and neighboring parishes from the storm surges and flooding that accompany hurricanes.

A $15 billion upgrade to the hurricane-protection system designed to protect the area, scheduled for completion in 2011, is only 20 percent complete, and there are significant gaps that make New Orleans residents nervous as they contemplate Gustav's possible arrival.

Levee experts and the Army Corps insisted New Orleans is safer than before Katrina flooded more than 80 percent starting Aug. 29, 2005.

New Orleans is partially below sea level and is shaped like a bowl, its levees serving as the rim. Some suburbs are within the levee system, while others lie outside it. After Katrina, some parts of the metro area weren't protected by storm-surge gates; others were protected by levees that failed.

Since 2005, the Corps of Engineers has repaired some levees, made others higher and put gates on certain canals, enabling the city to block a storm surge.

"That's a substantial difference," said Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer who has studied the levees.

But, he added, equivalent gates have not been installed on major navigation waterways in the eastern part of the city. A strong storm surge could barrel down the waterways and inundate the city and suburbs.

Gustav, meanwhile, still a tropical storm, whipped Jamaica with rain and wind Thursday and threatened to grow back into a hurricane before striking the Cayman Islands today.

No deaths were reported in Jamaica, but the death toll mounted in Gustav's wake in Hispaniola, with Haitian officials confirming at least 67 deaths.

In case one wasn't enough, Tropical Storm Hanna — the eighth of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season — was spinning about 1,400 miles east-southeast of Miami. Hanna could strengthen into a hurricane by Labor Day, but it likely wouldn't threaten the U.S. next week.

Projections showed Gustav arriving early next week as a Category 3 hurricane, with winds of 111 mph or greater, from the Florida Panhandle to eastern Texas. The National Hurricane Center's cone shows the storm's projected path's center line pointing at the Louisiana coast southwest of New Orleans.

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In preparation Thursday for Gustav's arrival:

• Governors in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas declared states of emergency in an attempt to build a foundation for federal assistance.

• Louisiana's corrections department planned to start moving 9,000 inmates away from coastal areas.

• At least three of the nation's largest railroads, Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Norfolk Southern, said they would redirect traffic out of New Orleans until the danger passes.

Information from The Associated Press and The Miami Herald is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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