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Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Gen. Carl Strock holds up a map of New Orleans indicating the areas of the worst flooding colored in red during a Pentagon press briefing on Sept. 2, 2005.

Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Gen. Carl Strock holds up a map of New Orleans indicating the areas of the worst flooding colored in red during a Pentagon press briefing on Sept. 2, 2005. (Department of Defense)

SEOUL — Has the Army Corps of Engineers adequately prepared New Orleans for the upcoming hurricane season in time for a June 1 deadline?

Corps commander Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock told Stars and Stripes “yes,” even as experts in the States questioned the organization’s recovery work following Hurricane Katrina last year.

But even Strock, on a recent visit to Pacific bases, admits the Corps is relying on backup plans for keeping potential storm surges from swamping the city in upcoming months.

“There are some aspects that are not going to happen as we had hoped,” Strock said of the Corps’ efforts in New Orleans.

He explained that the most vulnerable areas in New Orleans are the drainage canals with the levies and floodwalls that were breached during Katrina. The problem, he said, is possible storm surges from Lake Pontchartrain.

“And we had a system in place where we were going to put in gates that could be raised and lowered,” he said. “We were not able to get all those in as hoped by the first of June, so instead of gates we’re driving sheet piles that will seal off those canals.”

The American Society of Engineers External Review Panel, the watchdog over the Corps’ post-Katrina investigation and work, criticized the backup plan in a recent report, according to a May 25 Washington Post story.

The panel believes the Corps’ safety standards were “too close to the margin” in protecting residents, according to the Post.

The group sent a letter to Strock questioning the Corps’ claims that “unforeseeable” forces weakened floodwalls and pointed out that Army officials conducted three studies that predicted the catastrophic consequences of a canal wall failure, according to the paper.

Strock spoke to Stars and Stripes about the Corps’ mission five days before the Post story was published.

He was blunt in assuming the Corps would face some criticism as the June 1 deadline was nearing.

“First of all, it was the floodwalls and the levies built by the Corps of Engineers that did not hold back the waters of Katrina,” he said. “So there was concern about whether we had done our job properly down there.”

A technical investigation is to be completed in the beginning of June, he said. The probe can help determine whether there were design errors in the system or whether the storm was simply too overpowering.

Flood systems aren’t designed to withstand any possible force, Strock said.

“These are very expensive projects to put on the ground,” he said, “so you strike the right balance between the cost of the project, the likelihood of an event and then the consequences if an event should happen."

He said defenses in New Orleans should have protected the city from a storm that would only happen every 200 or 300 years.

“Katrina approached that type of storm,” he said, adding that it was disaster that America wasn’t prepared for as a nation.

“I think that we at FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the States and everyone else have now responded properly,” he said.

“I think we’re where we need to be as we face the next hurricane season.”

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