Hours before Hurricane Rita made landfall, the storm’s outer ring hit New Orleans with an early volley of rain and wind that sent floodwaters cascading back into the city’s Lower 9th Ward and nearby neighborhoods.
Days after the Army Corps of Engineers pumped these areas dry, gale-force winds pushed Lake Pontchartrain 2 to 3 feet above normal. That rise was high enough to propel water over the damaged walls of the Industrial Canal, which runs alongside the Lower 9th Ward, a neighborhood that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
By midafternoon, water was retaking the deserted neighborhood. Steady ripples edged up over the tops of cars and climbed uninvited up front steps, the water obliterating signs of Katrina’s destruction with more of its own.
Officials said one critical waterway, the 17th Street Canal, was withstanding Rita’s initial storm surges. Neighborhoods around the London Avenue Canal, by Lake Pontchartrain to the north of the city, were steadily filling with water. Corps spokespeople said much of the water was normal seepage from a rock-and-gravel repair to the levee.
On Wednesday, the corps fortified both canals to protect against a storm surge from the lake.
“That repair is absolutely fine,” said David Wurtzel, a corps engineer who helped supervise construction of the 450-foot patch at the 17th Street Canal. “Every time we get a leak we plug it up.”
Wurtzel walked the length of the repair in a torrential rain, the wind whipping up the channel water, which rose to within 3 feet of the top of the temporary dike. He said crews were using sonar-like devices to monitor the levee for erosion and were prepared to shore it up quickly. Three large trucks filled with sandbags were parked nearby.
Several tornado warnings were issued Friday, and Wurtzel said it was “tough to speculate” how the levee would perform if hit by a twister. “At this point, nothing would surprise me,” he said.
Police turned back Everette Eglin when he tried to drive across the levee to his home in an evacuated neighborhood. “I heard it’s flooded down there,” said Eglin, 40, a film industry construction manager. “It’s our bad luck, I guess.”
Throughout the day, rain strafed the city, adding to the floodwaters. Since New Orleans sits like a bathtub below sea level, all that water must be pumped out.
As the waters rose, local, state and federal forces involved in recovery work stood down to wait the storm out. Many of them came to flooded areas to watch Rita undo their work of the last three weeks. Residents scrambled to pack and get out of town, while holdouts, ignoring evacuation orders, readied supplies to hunker down.
This second round of flooding, in neighborhoods that days ago were pumped dry, is likely to slow New Orleans’ recovery efforts and crush the hopes some evacuees had of returning soon to their city.
Though corps officials repeatedly had said the Industrial Canal would be the most vulnerable to Rita’s assault, they were surprised at the extent of the flooding.
“This is not totally unexpected, but it is certainly more than we expected,” said Stephen Browning, a project manager for the corps, as he watched water pour into the Lower 9th Ward from a bridge overlooking the area.
After Katrina ripped a 50-yard breach in the Industrial Canal levee, the corps repaired it by piling gravel and sand to a height of 7 feet, Browning said.
The cascading water from Rita stripped away the top 3 feet of gravel, said corps spokeswoman Susan Jackson. She said the corps would have built the patch higher if there had been time.
“We’ve been working 24 hours a day to raise it,” she said. “In hindsight, there was nothing more we could have done.... We just wanted to make sure it didn’t collapse.”
Jackson said the corps also did not have time to repair the levee on the west side of the canal, where Katrina had partially flattened a flood wall. On Friday, water coursed over that section.
Dan Hitchings, a corps spokesman in Baton Rouge, La., said high winds stymied attempts to stop the latest flooding. “We can’t get access, and the wind was blowing too hard to transport sandbags” to repair the canal, he said. “Winds were in excess of 40 mph and helicopters couldn’t fly there.
“Looking back, we should have put another foot [of gravel and rocks] on it.”
Browning said that a surge of almost 8 feet washed the sandy materials off the top but that the base would give the corps something to build on once Rita was gone. The corps hopes to have the levees strong enough to withstand a Category 3 hurricane by next summer.
In the meantime, water, wind and rain inflicted continued damage throughout the city Friday.
In the Lower 9th Ward, the wind was prying the facade off the Beauty Spot at the corner of Flood and St. Claude streets, finishing work Katrina started.
Bathtubs, splintered trees, children’s toys and upended cars were scattered across lawns that were fast disappearing as the water lapped higher. On a tilting telephone pole, a small green-and-white sign read “Litter Free Zone.”
Just north, water poured into the Desire Projects neighborhood Friday afternoon. The skeletal remains of a house, stripped by Katrina of its metal siding, stood in a pool of water that had risen halfway up street signs. Dead fish and crabs littered the streets still above water. Multicolored shipping containers lay tossed like a jumble of oversized Legos.
The renewed flooding was something of a blow to city morale. “Up until Rita, everyone was kind of upbeat,” Mayor C. Ray Nagin said Thursday. “Now everyone is struggling with why we have to deal with two storms back to back.” On Friday morning, on local radio, he said, “We’re just going to deal with it the best we can.”
Law enforcement officials seeking a view of the damage began arriving at the North Claiborne Bridge, which arcs over the Industrial Canal a few yards from the levee breach. New Orleans Police Lt. Julie Wilson fought her way up the bridge’s slope, leaning into a wind that ripped the words from her mouth as soon as she spoke them.
Below, the muddy canal waters churned, frothing to whitecaps as they poured through the hole made by Katrina. Despite the corps repairs, water poured into the residential streets of the Lower 9th Ward below.
“That road was dry an hour ago,” Wilson said, shaking her head. “With Katrina, we had the levee; now it is 2 or 3 feet shorter, the water is just pouring in and there’s nothing we can do.”
Wilson was joined by fellow officers, including a steady stream of Oklahoma National Guard, Coast Guard, New York firefighters and Arizona search-andrescue teams. Some, like Grady Clark, an electrician with the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board, were dismayed at the work to come.
“Almost everything copper that’s touched by saltwater has to be replaced,” he said, crouching down to try to avoid the wind’s bite.
In some areas of the city, a few residents were getting ready to ride out the storm. In the Upper 9th Ward, Jeffrey Holmes was tooling through the streets on his banana-seat bike. The 40-year-old artist decided to stay after being shut out of the city for days after Katrina hit.
“I grew up in Florida,” he said. “We get weather like this all the time. It’s no big deal.”
By Lake Pontchartrain, in the Gentilly neighborhood, Phillip Manuel wasn’t budging either, but not by choice. The musician had driven back into the city to gather a few things from home before returning to temporary lodging in Boutee, La. As he combed through the house, the car battery died, stranding him, wife Janice and youngest son Zachary in front of their flooddamaged house.
Manuel and his son walked a mile out of their deserted neighborhood, a palm-filled suburb known as Little California, to the main road in hopes of flagging someone with a jumper cable. Police, military, journalists all passed, none with cables. Manuel stood in the middle of the road, marveling at the emptiness. “On any given Friday, this place would be hopping,” he said.
Ten cars and an hour or so later, a white truck stopped with the answer Manuel wanted.
The driver, Alan Reese, had cables. Even better, he lived three blocks from Manuel.
Reese was returning for his first visit since Katrina struck. “Emotionally, I’m shattered,” he said. He has rented an apartment in Baton Rouge for himself and his mother, “but I’m coming back,” he said, “definitely, in spite of all of it.”
The men threaded the cables from Reese’s white Ford to Manuel’s black Acura SUV. The engine coughed, then roared. Strangers an hour ago, they wrapped each other in a hug.
“When this is all over, we are going to sit down and drink some Heinekens,” Manuel said. Then they both left, racing to beat Rita out of town.