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Ravaged by Katrina, New Orleans still wary of levees

Written by: Staff

NEW ORLEANS, May 2 (Reuters) As a New Orleans firefighter, Randy Cookmeyer stayed on the job as Hurricane Katrina slammed the city on August 29. It was four days before he could go home, and by then he had to moor a boat to the rain gutter of his garage to retrieve clothes for his two sons.

''I climbed up on my roof, cut a hole and got in through the attic because the water was up to the second-floor windows,'' Cookmeyer said outside his home, three blocks from where the storm surge ripped a 140-metre hole in the 17th Street Canal levee, which devastated the west part of town.

But he has pushed ahead with renovation despite the ruin that still marks the area. He gutted his home, treated the studs for mould and installed new drywall and kitchen cabinets.

He admits it is partly an act of faith, despite assurances from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the region's 565-km levee system will be back to pre-Katrina strength by the start of the 2006 hurricane season on June 1.

''It doesn't mean there will be a hurricane June 1, it's just the hurricane season,'' said Cookmeyer, 40. ''So hopefully they continue working and make the levees better than they ever were, because it affected a lot of people.'' It still does. Eight months after failed levees played a major role in America's worst natural disaster, more than half New Orleans' pre-storm population remains scattered across the country and entire tracts of neighbourhoods are debris fields.

In other parts of south Louisiana, such as St. Bernard and lower Plaquemines parishes, virtually no structures were spared damage from Katrina, then Hurricane Rita nearly a month later.

As the storm season looms -- one forecasters predict will be active -- integrity of the levees is an overriding concern for residents and politicians as the region rebuilds.

RACING TO FIX DAMAGE Under its Task Force Guardian initiative, the Corps is racing to finish 798 million dollars of repairs to 272 km of all-important earthen, steel and concrete flood barriers, most of which were built in the 1960s.

More than 4 billion dollars of major long-term improvements are being planned but Washington has yet to approve the funding and the first stage is not due to be finished until September 2007.

Today, cranes and earth-moving equipment dot the south Louisiana landscape. By late April, repairs were nearly three-quarters done, said Corps spokesman John Fleshman.

''This work would normally take maybe 18 months or two years, and we're doing it in six months, so it's definitely compressed,'' Fleshman said. ''For that reason among others we brought on quality control people and so has the contractor.'' Various engineering groups blamed failures during Katrina on such factors as soil erosion and settling along floodwalls and poor design and maintenance by the Corps and contractors.

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