The great wall of Lake Borgne is a monster. Nearly two miles long and 26 feet high, it spans a corner of the lake, 12 miles east of New Orleans. On Aug. 29, 2005, that corner funneled Hurricane Katrina’s surge into New Orleans, causing some of the city’s most violent flooding. Now the corner is being blocked.
Nearly five years after Katrina and the devastating failures of the levee system, New Orleans is well on its way to getting the protection system Congress ordered: a ring of 350 miles of linked levees, flood walls, gates and pumps that surrounds the city and should defend it against the kind of flooding that in any given year has a 1 percent chance of occurring.
The scale of the nearly $15 billion project, which is not due to be completed until the beginning of next year’s hurricane season, brings to mind an earlier age when the nation built huge works like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Hoover Dam and the Interstate highway system.
The city’s reinforced defenses are already stronger than they were before Katrina. But even after 2011, experts argue, they will still provide less protection than New Orleans needs to avoid serious flooding in massive storms.
For a region devastated by a storm and by a loss of faith in the government’s ability to safeguard it, the new system is a test of more than the prowess of the Army Corps of Engineers. Some residents say they may never fully get over the failure of the Katrina response. “Do I trust them?” asked Beverly Crais, a Jefferson Parish resident. “No. How can I trust somebody who makes that big of an error?”