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One broken levee may be fixed today

A two-block breach should be filled, isolating waters from Lake Pontchartrain.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 2, 2005

Though parts of New Orleans could remain flooded for another month, a broken levee that exposed the city to the waters of Lake Pontchartrain will be fixed by today, Louisiana Transportation Secretary Johnny Bradberry predicted Thursday.

The levee, which flanks the 17th Street Canal, lost a two-block chunk Tuesday.

The Army Corps of Engineers had tried to dump huge sandbags and concrete highway barriers from helicopters into the gaping hole on Wednesday. But that strategy proved ineffective and was abandoned.

Thursday's plan called for a private contractor to jam pilings and interlocking steel plates into the mud at the mouth of the canal, temporarily sealing it off from the lake.

A makeshift road was built along the levee, allowing trucks to bring in sandbags and concrete.

"Hopefully, within the next day or day and a half, we will completely isolate the lake" from the breach, Bradberry said.

A smaller breach, one canal east, is actually easing flood conditions at the moment, he said, because the lake's water level and the city's water level have equalized and the lake is dropping about a foot a day as water drains toward the Gulf of Mexico.

A small hole also will be temporarily maintained in the 17th Street Canal levee, he said.

Meanwhile, some critics suggested that the nation's focus on terrorism has come at the expense of natural disaster protection.

After the 9/11 attacks, FEMA - the emergency management agency - was folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Projects for natural disaster protection suffered repeated budget cuts.

In 2005, the Corps of Engineers requested $78-million to strengthen levees, improve pumping stations and prevent flooding in New Orleans. The Bush administration cut the request to $30-million and, in the end, Congress approved $36.5-million.

"This year we were $50-million short of what we thought we needed for hurricane protection," said Rep. William J. Jefferson, D-La.

Projects to fight natural disasters have "lost steam" since FEMA moved to Homeland Security, said Walter Peacock, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University.

"This should be a wake-up call for our government. We've got to get back to thinking about those things and not totally go off on terrorism and terrorist issues," Peacock said. "The pendulum has swung so far that FEMA is really under jeopardy and not getting funding."

Times staff writer Susan Taylor Martin contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times.

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