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Hurricane cleanup could take months, years

Katrina left a tangled mess, but human behavior has contributed to the problem. Engineering experts give their take.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
New Orleans could be underwater for quite a while, according to experts, and the oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico might be under repairs for years.

The scope of the flooding following Hurricane Katrina, combined with the fact that New Orleans is below sea level, has created an engineering nightmare, according to Bob Bea, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley who also worked for more than 30 years in the oil and gas industry.

The extent of the damage was also exacerbated by inadequacies in the levee system and failures of other safety precautions, he added.

"You're going to have to pump out every damn drop. It could take months," he said in a phone interview. To make matters worse, it remains unclear whether the electrical emergency backup systems actually still function. If not, the prognosis is even worse because the systems are needed to power the pumps to begin the cleanup.

Dave Dzombak, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, agreed that the cleanup of the city will likely take months and that human neglect exacerbated the situation. Experts have warned for a number of years that a serious threat of a strong storm breaching the city's aging defenses existed, but remedial actions had only just begun.

"Plans were under way to do various things, but the budget wasn't completely there," he said. "There was a certain probability of a storm this size hitting New Orleans. They didn't beat the odds."

Cleaning up the offshore oil and chemical refineries poses even a more daunting challenge, which experts believe will lead to increases in the price of fuel. Some of the pipes extend 2,000 feet below the surface of the water, Bea said. Right now, the refinery operators likely have not even been able to get an adequate picture of the damage because evaluation crews haven't been able to get out to the facilities. Some were still in the process of cleaning up after last year's big storm, Hurricane Ivan, which struck in September.

"The first thing that happens is that you've got to rescue yourself," he said. "There are a million and a half barrels of oil shut in there a day."

Hurricane damage is sort of a personal issue for Bea. Back in 1965, he lost a house in Hurricane Betsy, a massively destructive hurricane. As the chief of offshore civil engineering for Shell, he supervised reconstruction of facilities for the oil giant after the storm.

New Orleans wasn't always below sea level, he added. Over time, however, the soils compacted and the population grew, two factors that have pushed the Crescent City under the waterline. Venice, Italy, shares a similar fate.

Following Betsy, the city and the gulf region in general began to beef up flood management systems. Canals and pumping stations were built, and the height of levees--essentially soil dams intended to hold back floods--was increased.

Development, though, created conflicts. Channels were opened up between Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico to allow for ship traffic. Unfortunately, "no one thought about how this would make it easier for hurricane surges to come and go more easily," Bea said.

The political willpower and the public's willingness to pay for precautions also began to fade over time. Defensive levees should be around 18 feet tall in the region, Bea noted. Many chemical refineries built their levees to this specification, but it's far from universally applied in the region.

"In New Orleans, some are 15 feet, some are 12 feet. Some levees have degraded to 10 feet," he said. Levees are also a "weakest link" system, so that a break anywhere can create widespread problems.

Once reoccupation begins, New Orleans will face another problem: a lack of drinking water. Large, 50-inch water mains have broken, Dzombak said. The city will have to identify and pressure test the breaks, and then later clean up areas that have become infected. Until all that can be done, portions of the city will have to get their water from tankers.

If there is a bright spot in the gloom, the disaster may help policy-makers focus more sharply on the relationship of cities and the environment, Dzombak predicted.

"New Orleans developed there for historical reasons, but today you'd have to look at it as an unsustainable development," he said.