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Wednesday, August 31, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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With its pumps underwater, city faces days as a murky swamp

NEW ORLEANS — This city is likely to stay awash for days under oily, filthy water infested with mosquitoes, even if failed levees can be fixed quickly.

An initial sense of relief that the city had escaped the storm's worst dissolved yesterday, as an estimated 80 percent of the 180-square-mile city gradually turned into an urban swamp.

"While everyone knew this could happen, I don't think anyone was really prepared for it," said oceanographer Paul Kemp, at Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center. "There are some disasters beyond comprehension, and I think this is one of them."

State officials said they had located at least two major breaches — a 26-foot-deep, 500-foot-wide gap in the 17th Street Canal and another in the Industrial Canal. Murky water, laced with junk and pollutants, coursed through the city, including downtown streets.

Col. Jeff Smith, Louisiana's deputy director of emergency management, said the Army Corps of Engineers hoped to fix the 17th Street break as soon as last night or today.

The plan was to load large metal containers resembling truck trailers with heavy sandbags and rocks and drop them into place, like a cork stopping a bottle, Smith said.

He said officials were still evaluating the plan, trying to ensure that the weighted-down containers could hold back the floodwaters and would not cause more damage.

Flooding specialists predicted that conditions could worsen as authorities focused first on saving people trapped in buildings.

Some flood-control pumps were broken, choked by excess water or storm debris. Others were lacking power. Roofs were reported collapsed on at least two major pumping stations.

Without pumps, much of the floodwater will have nowhere to drain in this city cradled within a bowl, at an average of 6 feet below sea level.

In a frustrating catch-22, it will be difficult to fix the pumps and restore their power while they are underwater, but it's difficult to drain the water without the pumps, the flood experts warned.

"It's going to be days before they get all that water out," said marine scientist Ivor van Heerden, also of LSU, who developed flooding models for the city. He was out with a boat inspecting water levels yesterday.

When the hurricane's eye veered away from the city Monday morning, the fiercest winds and storm surge bashed into the coast east of New Orleans.

Although some neighborhoods flooded, most of the city was spared severe flooding in the immediate aftermath.

By early yesterday, however, waters were creeping into large parts of the mostly evacuated city, normally home to about 484,000 people.

Experts at LSU warned of potential dangers ahead. Louisiana's frequent summer rains — or even another hurricane — could add to flooding in coming days and weeks, they said.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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