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Draining Big Easy not easy

Doug J. Swanson Dallas Morning News

DALLAS – If modern New Orleans can be saved from water, 19th-century technology will have to do the job.

A network of pumps and canals, first envisioned in the late 1800s, will be used to drain the topographical bowl that is New Orleans. For now, though, the pumps aren’t working and the canals have sprung giant leaks.

Even under the best of circumstances, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said Wednesday, it could take weeks to pump all the floodwater from the city.

“No, we are not desperate,” said Donald Basham, chief of engineering construction for the corps of engineers. “Yes, we are extremely concerned.”

One area of concern is the condition of the levees that crisscross New Orleans. Saturation could cause more of them to fail, engineers said.

Most of the water that covers much of the city will be pumped into Lake Pontchartrain, which, despite its name, is actually an extension of the Gulf of Mexico.

Situated below sea level, New Orleans is “a bathtub with a bathtub around the bathtub,” Basham said. “We’re trying to pump water from the smaller bathtub into the larger bathtub.”

Until Wednesday, water from the lake had been pouring into the city through levee breaches along canals that normally flow to the lake. By late Wednesday, lake levels had dropped.

“We believe flow into the city is not happening,” said Walter Baumy, chief of engineering for the New Orleans district of the Corps.

At least three things must happen before New Orleans can be drained, officials said.

First, they must repair breaches in the canal levees, at least two of which are more than 300 feet long. Chinook helicopters and 15,000-pound sandbags will be deployed when the material is assembled.

Corps officials said they hoped that would begin late Wednesday or early today.

Second, if lake levels continue to drop, workers will punch holes in some levees. “Then the water will drain out of the bathtub,” corps spokesman Bob Anderson said.

And third, they hope to get the pumps working, though no one is sure when that will happen. None of the pumps is operating now, Baumy said. Some have no electrical power. Others were damaged or are under water.

But at their most effective, the pumps can remove only several inches of water from New Orleans per day. It could take many weeks to drain the city at that rate.

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