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New Orleans 'Unwatering' Task Force Speeds Progress

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 15, 2005 – The Crescent City will be dry long before originally thought, the commander of Task Force Unwatering said here Sept. 14.

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Stuart Waits, facing center, and Chad Rachel, right, both from the New Orleans District, Army Corps of Engineers, discuss pumping operations and progress on Sept. 14 with German engineers at Pump Station No. 19. Pumping and engineering specialists from across the country and around the world are an integral part of the unwatering effort in New Orleans. USACE Photo

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"All I'm thinking about is water," said Army Col. Duane Gapinski, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers task force that is draining the floodwaters from New Orleans.

The corps has made incredible progress, officials said. Since Hurricane Katrina flooded the city Aug. 30, engineers and workers have been feverishly damming up breached levees, strengthening canal walls and getting huge pumps on line.

The results are plain to see. "Right now in the metropolitan area, we are moving about 10,000 cubic feet per second, which is about 7.5 billion gallons a day," Gapinski said during an interview. "This changes every day, and that will continue."

The colonel said that once the main pumps in one station come on line, the pace of draining the city will enjoy a big increase. Originally, officials estimated it could take up to four months to drain the water from New Orleans. Gapinski estimated that some flooded areas of the city will be dry in a week, with others finished by the end of the month. Outlying areas -- particularly Plaquemines Parish, which runs from New Orleans to the mouth of the Mississippi River - will take longer, but should be done by mid-October, the colonel said.

"When we started, there was about 90 percent inundation," Gapinski said. "We're under 50 percent now."

The water is full of contaminants and has the viscosity of sludge. Thick and gummy, it looks like something Hollywood would use in a horror flick. "If your pet falls in that, just put it to sleep," said a worker at the 17th Street Canal. "It's nasty."

The smell is also something to experience. The flood not only picked up industrial contaminants, but flooded sewage facilities. Breaking the surface tension of the water releases a stench that hits bystanders like a punch.

The Corps of Engineers employees - mostly civilians - have been working around the clock, seven days a week, to solve the unwatering problem. "Many of the employees here lost everything they own in the flood," said corps spokeswoman Susan Jackson. "But they are taking care of the needs of the city before they confront their own losses."

Corps employees are sleeping on the floor of the headquarters. They also are using the berths on the Corps hopper U.S. Dredge Wheeler, now docked on the Mississippi River next to the headquarters building.

And while one team is working on unwatering problems, another team is working debris removal and still another is getting potable water and ice into the city. Corps employees are also working on a "blue roof" operation - an effort to get tarps over structures that have lost their roofs in the storm.

And all this must be coordinated through the state and local emergency management agencies.

Longer-range projects abound. Katrina practically destroyed a hurricane-protection levee along the eastern approaches of the city. The levee was designed to hold against a fast-moving Category 3 storm. It was 17 and a half feet tall, and Katrina punched breaches thousands of feet long in it. Hurricane season runs through November and some sort of repairs must be made soon, officials said.

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Military Support in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

Click photo for screen-resolution imageStuart Waits of the New Orleans District, Army Corps of Engineers, oversees the removal of a barge from the Almonaster Ave. Bridge, also known as the L&N railroad bridge on Sept. 14. Hurricane Katrina's storm surge deposited this barge and another on the bridge, rendering it inoperable and cutting off access to the northern portion of the Industrial Harbor Navigation Canal from the south. The other barge was removed a day earlier. USACE Photo  
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