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Engineers voice fear on levees if new storm hits New Orleans

Senate panel told repairs to system may not suffice

WASHINGTON -- Repairs to the New Orleans levees may not be enough to protect people moving back to the devastated city if another hurricane comes before the tropical storm season ends this month, engineers said yesterday.

Dozens of breaches still mar the city's levee system, and a large seep was reported last week at the Industrial Canal, according to engineering specialists who have examined the floodwalls.

Repairs have gotten better, the specialists told members of a Senate panel. But the rebuilding process was done with little or no engineering guidance and perhaps substandard materials, they said.

''Short term, without a storm, they are probably adequately safe," said Dr. Peter Nicholson, who is an engineering professor at the University of Hawaii who was representing the American Society of Civil Engineers.

''Certainly with a large storm, as we are not yet out of hurricane season, and certainly for next hurricane season, there is significant risk," Nicholson added in testimony before the panel.

At the Industrial Canal levee, which abuts the city's obliterated Ninth Ward, repairs to breaches ''were not adequate for a high-water incidence -- for instance, another hurricane storm surge with the storm season that isn't yet behind us, or even a very high tide," said Raymond B. Seed, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Seed participated in a National Science Foundation study of levee failures.

The large seep at that levee, which occurred on Oct. 24, ''was not entirely unexpected," Seed told the panel.

However, he said, deeper walls ''that will be far more stable than they were before" have been dug in at least some areas since the National Science Foundation examined the levees.

''I don't think there is a long-term risk to the city of New Orleans," Seed said.

Senator Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine, who chaired the panel, said she was troubled by the repairs. ''These rebuilt levees may be at risk of failing in another storm, a disturbing finding that raises questions about the safety of the city's returning residents," Collins said. She heads the Senate Homeland Security committee, which held a hearing on why the New Orleans floodwalls failed after Katrina hit on Aug. 29.

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the panel, echoed Seed's questions about whether the levees could now ''protect the city of New Orleans from high tides, let alone another hurricane."

Dr. Paul F. Mlakar, a senior scientist at the Army Research and Development Center, warned legislators against making any conclusions before the Army Corps of Engineers completes a review.

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