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Big bill for levee upkeep comes to New Orleans

Levee

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Lower Ninth Ward resident S.J. Thomas walked in front of the new levee wall along the Industrial Canal.

NEW ORLEANS — In the busy and under-staffed offices of New Orleans’ flood-control leaders, there’s an uneasy feeling about what lies ahead.

By the time the next hurricane season starts in June 2013, the city will take control of much of a revamped protection system of gates, walls, and armored levees that the Army Corps of Engineers has spent about $12 billion building. The corps has about $1 billion worth of work left.

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Engineers consider it a Rolls-Royce of flood protection — comparable to systems in seaside European cities such as St. Petersburg, Venice, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam. Whether the infrastructure can hold is less in question than whether New Orleans can be trusted with the keys.

The Army Corps estimates it will take $38 million a year to pay for upkeep, maintenance, and operational costs after it is turned over to local officials.

Local flood-control chief Robert Turner said he has questions about where that money will come from. At current funding levels, the region will run out of money to properly operate the high-powered system within a decade unless a new revenue source is found.

‘‘There’s a price to pay for resiliency,’’ the levee engineer said from his office at the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. ‘‘We can’t let pieces of this system die away. We can’t be parochial about it.’’

On Nov. 6, New Orleans voters were faced with one of their first challenges on flood protection when they voted on renewal of a critical levee tax. The tax levy was approved, meaning millions of dollars should be available annually for levee maintenance.

Bob Bea, a civil engineer at the University of California, said the region must find additional money. ‘‘If you try to operate it and maintain it on a shoestring, then it won’t provide the protection that people deserve.’’

Many locals remain uneasy, even though Turner’s agency is a welcome replacement for local levee boards that were previously derided.

‘‘It’s scary,’’ said C. Ray Bergeron, owner of Fleur De Lis Car Care, a service station in the Lakeview neighborhood where water rose to rooftops after levees collapsed during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Before Katrina, Bergeron said the local levee boards were complacent. ‘‘They told everybody everything was fine, ‘oh yeah, it’s fine. Let’s go have martinis and lunch.’ ’’

After Katrina, the locally run levee boards that oversaw the area’s defenses were vilified, and replaced by the regional levee district run by Turner.

Congressional inquiries found the old Orleans Levee Board more interested in managing a casino license and two marinas than looking after levees.

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