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On Katrina's 7th Anniversary, A New Storm Hurtles In


We just heard in Debbie's story from Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans. He insists that his city is, in his words, much, much better prepared than it was seven years ago. So we thought we'd take a few minutes to understand what lessons New Orleans learned from Katrina and in what ways its better prepared for Isaac.

I spoke earlier today with Mark Schleifstein, environment reporter of the Times-Picayune. We started by talking about the patchwork of flood walls and levees that proved no match for Katrina. Since then, the federal government has spent $14.5 billion to protect the city.

MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN: The first they did was they changed from the idea of having a patchwork of levee systems to a single system that is all designed to the same standards and built properly. They also looked at what kinds of hurricanes can actually occur in the Gulf of Mexico rather than just looking at historical hurricanes and made the heights of the different pieces match what their concerns were for what they call 100-year storm, which actually a hurricane with a 1 percent chance of occurring.

CORNISH: I'm curious about what the current system was focusing on in terms of how it was rebuilt. Can it tackle things like storm surge and rainfall and flooding?

SCHLEIFSTEIN: So first of all, the levee system itself is only designed to protect from storm surge that's coming from outside the levees. But the core of engineers has built resiliency into it, in which even if it is over-topped, the levees and the flood walls will remain in place so there will be less flooding that would occur even if there were an over-topping of that.

Now, the interior areas, in terms of rainfall from a similar sort of 100-year rainfall event, the city of New Orleans still is at great risk of flooding from those kinds of events. But there has been a lot of money that is in the midst of being spent on improving the pumping and the ability of the drainage system to remove that water. But that will remain a problem, but it's, you know, you don't get 20 feet of water as a result of that. You might get five to seven feet at most.

CORNISH: Any areas of the city that has seen less progress maybe that are still areas of concern?

SCHLEIFSTEIN: Well, really it still is a problem for communities that live outside of the levy system. There are several such communities on what's called the West Bank, the south side of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans area that are out of the new levee system there. Several thousand people who live in homes that are not protected.

CORNISH: We've talked about the things that were built by the Army Corps, but can you talk also about the regions, eroded wetlands and the sort of natural barriers. Has there anything been done on that front?

SCHLEIFSTEIN: There's quite a bit being done, but unfortunately still not quite enough to overcome the loss of wetlands that still occurs and especially the significant loss that occurred during and after Hurricane Katrina and during two additional hurricanes that occurred in 2008. But there is quite a bit of money that is on its way, so to speak, from both the state and the federal government to assist in rebuilding those wetlands over the next four to five years.

CORNISH: Finally, Mark, a question less about protection and more about the look of the city. What do neighborhoods that were truly devastated by Katrina look like today?

SCHLEIFSTEIN: Well, it really depends on where you are in the city. If you're in Lakeview, which is on the western side of the city and actually was one of the more wealthy neighborhoods prior to Katrina, it's coming back fairly quickly. As you move east, where the income of the community drops and the ability of people to get back in immediately after Katrina and restore their homes was less, we've had less work.

And a lot of that work that has been done has largely been done through volunteer agencies or nonprofits.

CORNISH: That's Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, environment reporter. Thank you so much, Mark.

SCHLEIFSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.