NEW ORLEANS - Despite more than $22 million in repairs, a levee that broke with catastrophic effect during Hurricane Katrina is leaking again because of the mushy ground on which New Orleans was built, raising serious questions about the reliability of the city's flood defenses.
Some engineering experts who have studied the project told the Associated Press that the type of seepage spotted at the 17th Street Canal in the Lakeview neighborhood afflicts other New Orleans levees, too, and could cause some of them to collapse during a storm.
The Army Corps of Engineers has spent about $4 billion so far of the $14 billion set aside by Congress to repair and upgrade the metropolitan area's hundreds of miles of levees by 2011. Some outside experts said the leak could mean that billions more will be needed and that some of the work already completed may need to be redone.
"It is all based on a 30-year-old defunct model of thinking, and it means that when they wake up to this one - really - our cost is going to increase significantly," said Bob Bea, a civil engineer at the University of California at Berkeley.
The Army Corps of Engineers disputed the experts' dire assessment. The agency said it was taking the risk of seepage into account and rebuilding the levees within an adequate margin of safety.
"It's always a potential, so it is a design component for every feature," said Walter Baumy, the chief corps engineer in New Orleans.
The 17th Street Canal floodwall collapsed on the day Katrina surged over New Orleans in August 2005, and the failure severely damaged Lakeview. It was one of the biggest of about 50 levee breaches that contributed to the deaths of about 1,300 people.
Fixing the 17th Street Canal has been one of the most expensive and laborious repair jobs since the storm and has served as something of a test case for scientists and engineers, who plan to apply the lessons learned there to the city's other levees.
Among other things, they repaired the wall by driving interlocking sheets of steel 60 feet into the ground, compared with about 17 feet before the storm. The metal is supposed to prevent canal water from seeping under the levee through the wet, toothpastelike soil that lies beneath the city, which was built on reclaimed swamp and filled-in marsh.
Over the last few months, however, the corps has found evidence that canal water is seeping through the joints in the sheet metal and then rising on the other side of the levee, forming puddles and other wet spots.
Donald Jolissaint, chief of the corps' technical-support branch in New Orleans, denied that the problem at the 17th Street Canal was serious.
"I personally do not at all believe that this little wet spot is anything that is going to cause a breach or a failure of any kind," he said. A newly installed floodgate could be used to cut off the flow of water into the canal and reduce pressure on the levee, he said.