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American Forces Press Service

Corps of Engineers Completes New Orleans Canal Cleanup

By Elaine Eliah
Special to American Forces Press Service

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 10, 2006 If the word "canal" brings to mind images of Suez and Panama, or of singing gondoliers in historic Venice, think again. Hundreds of miles of canals snake through southern Louisiana parishes -- manmade waterways draining storm water to pump stations that hoist it up and outside the regional levee systems. Since Hurricane Katrina visited the area Aug. 29, very few of these waterways had been usable.

"We're out here cleaning canals," explained St. Bernard Parish subcontractor Roy Madere, "so if we do have more weather, we can stop it from flooding."

Blocked canals, like blocked pipes, mean water backs up and spills anywhere it can. In early October, the Lake Bourne Levee Board approached the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requesting help cleaning out the canals in St. Bernard, east of New Orleans city center, and one of the state's hardest-hit parishes. Assigned to that task was six-year USACE resident engineer and lifelong city resident Karen Lahare.

"My quality assurance supervisor, Anthony Gallodoro, lost his house in St. Bernard," she said, "and I've known this levee board's president, Bob Turner, for years." The New Orleans University graduate in civil engineering said she was relieved when the last canal was finished Jan. 7, but was grateful to have been part of the project since it began.

ECC Operating Services was contracted Oct. 14 to clear the canals. By that afternoon, USACE, ECC, and local subcontractors boarded a military Black Hawk helicopter to survey the parish's drainage system. By noon the next day, all parties had boots on the ground, even if their heavy equipment, which had spent time in or under water, took a bit of coaxing to revive. Reports of gas emanating from the canals had to be investigated by safety inspectors wearing respirators before work could proceed.

A network of more than 70 miles of canals drains St. Bernard's rural acreage and residential neighborhoods. By the end of October, the project involved three subcontractors, 21 crews and 125 workers, nearly all parish residents, or more accurately, former residents. The few parish homes that remain habitable have no electricity; the few residents who remain are in tents or trailers.

Cleaning couldn't even begin until machinery could get into position. Dozens of chainsaws chewed uprooted trees into bucket-size bites. Bulldozers plowed through neighborhood streets and cleared the top of the levee that surrounds St. Bernard Parish. Only then could excavators, loaders, Bobcats and trucks begin to tackle debris that was level with the top of the 12-foot levee.

"Anything you would have in your house, your garage," said Matt Padula, ECC supervisor, "it was in the canals."

Lahare described one eye-opening scene she saw. "One house floated across a street, went between two houses, then settled beside a canal," she said. "I think water rose so quickly, the air didn't have a chance to escape from houses and cars."

Madere, one of two partners in Hubbard Enterprises, a St. Bernard roadwork, utilities and drainage company, passed around photos of his Hopedale property, some taken just before evacuation, others taken when he returned. All that remains of the sizable home, prudently built on stilts, are the stilts.

Near the easternmost part of the parish, an entire village of sporting and holiday cabins outside the Back Levee Canal washed against the levee and over it into the canal that leads directly to the main parish pump stations. Refrigerators, air conditioners and water tanks, had to be sifted out of the vegetative material for appropriate disposal with "white goods." Construction debris, including entire roofs, had to be sawed into truck-size loads.

Throughout the project, not a single first-aid accident occurred, though at one point 22 water moccasins were killed in a half-hour period. "Worse thing we had was two excavators slip into a canal," said ECC superintendent Tom Gilbertson. He stopped work. "Let's take a look at this and see why it happened," he said. Everyone acknowledged that the ground between the levee and the canal could not support machinery that strayed too close to the water's edge.

It never happened again, thanks to safer work habits and to a pair of floating "Swamp Buggy" excavators. Invented in Louisiana for use in the oil fields, these have tracks that encircle twin pontoons, allowing the machine to move across land or water up to 12 feet deep. These excavators are able to reach the opposite canal bank, something their land-based counterparts cannot, and dredge up heavy material lying on canal bottoms.

Day after day, dump trucks and dump trailers queued atop the levee, waiting to be loaded. They trucked more than 120,000 cubic yards of debris away from the canals. Before any truck was permitted on the jobsite, safety personnel made certain drivers were qualified and that their vehicle was up to the task, including having load cover netting to prevent debris from flying out.

"It would be great to have had all local people doing the work to get the economy going," Lahare said, "but right now, it's good to just be getting this job done." Today, the St. Bernard Parish drainage canal system is again capable of handling one of Louisiana's very normal, very heavy rainstorms.

"ECC's role in this effort was to bring the companies together," Gilbertson explained, "coordinating where to put the crews, and assigning trucks where needed."

Lahare said the effort progressed smoothly because of communication. "I talked to ECC on a day-to-day basis, and we talked to the levee district and the parish. We all knew what was going on. We called each other if there was a problem, and it was taken care of."

"It's time for people to start working together," Padula said. "It's a test of our humanity, and that's part of what we've done here."

(Elaine Eliah is a communications specialist with ECC International Baghdad.)

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