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Gulf Coast recovery will focus on stronger levees

Water flows out of the breach in the Industrial Canal levee into the streets of New Orleans in September. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Water flows out of the breach in the Industrial Canal levee into the streets of New Orleans in September. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – The federal coordinator for Gulf Coast recovery efforts said Monday he will focus on ensuring the region’s levees are stronger than they were before Hurricane Katrina – but can’t offer assurances that they could withstand another storm of that size.

Donald Powell said he may not be able to quantify how long-term recovery efforts are progressing for at least eight months in the devastated region that he compared to a war zone. But he said he and local authorities need to focus first on security – making sure that levees can withstand another huge storm.

“I think New Orleans and Louisiana need to be safe,” Powell said in interview lasting nearly an hour with the Associated Press.

However, “I’m not sure what the science dictates,” Powell said when asked if the levees would be rebuilt to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, as Gulf Coast officials have requested. “Clearly, I think they’re going to be rebuilt up to a Level 3 but … they were not a Level 3 when the storm came. And then study and understand what the science is to get to a Level 5.”

“But the levees clearly are important,” he said.

Katrina was a Category 4 storm when it slammed into the coast on Aug. 29.

The Louisiana Recovery Agency estimates that rebuilding levees could cost $20 billion over the next six to eight years.

Powell called trying to move forward with recovery plans “overwhelming – it’s like starting from zero. We know our needs, so how do we get there?” Aside from rebuilding levees, canals and other environmental safeguards, his immediate priorities include:

“ Helping the economy get back on its feet, in part with the help of private industry. In Louisiana, state officials believe emergency loans will run out by Tuesday for thousands of small businesses that make up the backbone of the economy, and have pleaded with the Small Business Administration for respite. Lawmakers have said the SBA has processed only 17 percent of the 225,000 loan applications submitted since Katrina hit, leaving 187,000 requests pending.

“That’s got long-term consequences, so I’ll not be bashful to understand some of those issues and come back and say, ‘We need to find a better way to do this,’ ” Powell said.

“ Reopening schools and hospitals, and re-establishing police and fire forces, child care and local government to lure residents back to the region that he said looked like a war zone of deserted communities and crushed buildings when he recently visited.


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