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Just three weeks after the storm of the century destroyed a 200-mile swath of the Gulf Coast, roared up the Mississippi Valley, and flooded and emptied the Big Easy of half a million residents, Mayor Ray Nagin stepped in front of the microphones and said "We're bringing New Orleans back."
The announcement that residents could begin returning was premature---the hurricane season was not over and Hurricane Rita was about to roar into the Gulf of Mexico. But the fact that Nagin could contemplate repopulating New Orleans so soon marked a quiet victory for Robert Crear, the man tasked with saving the region.
Hours after Hurricane Katrina roared up the Mississippi Valley, Brigadier General Crear stood in his blacked-out home in his native Vicksburg, said goodbye to his wife of 33 years, and prepared to go to war.
As Commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corps of Engineers, Gen. Crear controlled a territory encompassing 370,000 square miles stretching from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. There isn't a major project in the 12 states along the muddy river's watershed that isn't touched by the Corps, the world's largest public engineering firm. And this hurricane, with its 150-m.p.h. arms stretching more than 100 miles on all sides of Katrina's windless eye, had left a trail of destruction in the heart of his domain from the Gulf north through Tennessee.
Crear has seen destruction. In 2003, he led the Corps efforts to restore Iraq's oil infrastructure following the destruction of the war and the subsequent guerrilla attacks on the industry. He already knew the high winds had blown down trees and ripped off roofs in Memphis, and Col. Richard Wagenaar, the commander of his New Orleans district office, had told him the town was flooding.
"We lost power in our headquarters in Vicksburg, and I had to move operations from my main building to another building," Crear said. "Reatha didn't get lights for a week. Almost everybody in Mississippi was out of power."
But the slow helicopter ride following U.S. Highway 49 south was a new experience. "Flying over the coast, there was more damage than I had ever seen," recalled Crear. "The wind basically destroyed everything, and then the water did the rest. It took the houses and blew them apart, and the water washed them away so all you have left is the foundation."
On the ground in Mississippi, you could see water marks 20 feet above you. The wind pulverized things and the water just wiped it off its foundation and stacked it up. It took those casino boats and threw them up between Highway 90 and Interstate 10. It took out the Highway 90 bridge."
This was worse than Iraq, he said, where looters cleaned out whole sections of towns, "but you had the frames of the buildings left. Here, you had nothing left. I had never seen anything as severe as that. And it didn't get better as we flew west towards Louisiana."
When he first flew over the stricken region, Crear was awestruck by the magnitude of the destruction. "Entire neighborhoods," he said, "everything from service stations to Wal-Mart was totally under water. There was nothing that escaped the flood waters. We saw boats that weighed tons that were picked up and left on the other side of flood walls."
Then, there was an emotional aspect to dealing with the catastrophe that hit so many low-income, primarily Black regions of the Deep South. "I saw that the faces were African American," he said. "As someone who was born and raised in the south, you know that most of the poor people are African Americans. That's a fact of life. These are the people who did not have transportation, the people who could not get out of New Orleans."
Crear grew up in Vicksburg, a city that fell to Union forces under Gen. Ulysses Grant on July 4, 1863 and wouldn't celebrate the nation's birthday for the next 75 years. "I grew up there in the Jim Crow era," recalled Crear.
"When I went to the movies, I went to the side entrance of the Joy Theater and sat in the colored balcony. If I wanted to go to the bathroom, I went next door to the colored waiting room in the bus station. That was repeated everywhere. I went to the colored waiting room at the doctor's office and drank from the colored water fountains.
"Whites were treated differently from Blacks, and there were things you were not allowed to do. Most of our parents worked very hard, but were not educated. They were kept from realizing their true potential---but it didn't dampen their spirits."
When he was eight years old, Crear saw a documentary of West Point cadets being commissioned as officers. "They were respected," Crear said. "They were judged by being an officer and their character and performance; it didn't matter what your color was. I told my mom I wanted to be an officer, second lieutenant, though I couldn't spell it at that time.
"My mom couldn't either. She had a third grade education, but she said 'If that's what you want to be, my son, then you can.' "
Crear went to Jackson State University and walked into an ROTC office to learn about the military. "I had never seen an African-American officer before," he recalled. "They were everything I dreamed they could be: smart, articulate, helicopter pilots, and well-spoken. There were also white officers there, and I saw that they were actually equals. They socialized together and they were friends. An officer is what I wanted to be."
Crear's mother and grandmother had taught him that if he wanted to be a Black professional in a field previously closed to Blacks, he had to "set such an example that the door would never be closed to any of us again." He remembered that admonition in 1998 when, as a colonel, he was assigned to Vicksburg as its first Black district commander.
"For the 125 years that the Corps had been in Vicksburg," said Crear, "they had never had an African-American commander. It was such an achievement that people would come up to me and say they wanted to shake my hand. They had never seen a Black colonel."
He became a regular speaker in the public schools in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, especially at his former Temple High School, which is now Vicksburg Junior High. He also taught a class at Vicksburg High and Warren Central High on the history of the Mississippi River and its impact on development with New Orleans native Mrs. Edwin Blum, a 103-year-old white woman he had met a few years earlier through a mutual friend.
"It was a great thing to have her there," Crear said. "They got her perspective of the river, the time she spent there as a kid, and her memories."
In 2004, he became General Crear, the first general from Vicksburg since the Civil War, and he was placed in charge of the entire Mississippi River Valley. President Bush appointed Crear president of the Mississippi River Commission, the agency responsible for coordinating flood control programs since 1879. He was the first African American to hold that post. It is in this role he faced his biggest challenge in Hurricane Kristina.
During his flight after the storm passed, Crear saw that New Orleans, which lay to the west of the storm's eye, had suffered its worst-case scenario.
"New Orleans is not one contiguous protected area," the General said. "It is subdivided into 15 protected areas, sub-basins, and levee districts which are all determined more by politics than topography."
The city is a bowl, with Lake Pontchartrain on the north, Lake Bourne on the east, the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and the Mississippi River meandering through it. The destruction along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama was caused by the combination of water sources and the 30-foot storm surged caused by the winds pushing the Gulf waters onto the land.
As the winds circled in their counter-clockwise path of destruction, they lost their Gulf storm surge. But here, the city provided its own water source: the lakes.
"The winds came through with tremendous force," said Crear, "and hurled that water through the canals and caused them to breach."
The levees are primarily composed of soils and clays selected for their ability to resist falling apart when wet.
"This is engineered fill, rather than just dirt," Crear explained. "We actually go out and find selected soils that meet our strength needs and impermeability requirements. We pick clays for some applications and sands for others."
These earthen levees are topped with 30-foot concrete walls, whose lower two thirds are sunk into the levee for support. Some of the walls are straight I-beams, and others are inverted T-shaped beams with the heads buried in the levees. Katrina's storm surge pushed water from the 45-foot-deep lakes over the top of these retaining walls, and the falling water scoured the city-side of the levees, eroding the support for the walls, triggering collapse in some areas and weakening others.
"We had a number of places where there were five feet or more of erosion, and the retaining walls did not fail," Crear said. "It all depended on the degree of overtopping. The funny thing about the storm is the water pressure and overtopping didn't treat every area equally. It is hard to say why one area seemed to have more water or higher water than another."
Crear divided the Gulf into two action sections: New Orleans, and everywhere else. He activated a series of plans already prepared for a Gulf disaster, and he began moving 1,700 people and dealing with the ravaged coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana. In the days to come, that number would grow to 3,500 workers. A separate assault was prepared for the Big Easy.
Crear began deploying his forces. Corps districts under control of the Memphis office were tasked with providing water, ice, power, roofing, and debris removal for all of Louisiana. The roofing chore alone meant getting more than two square miles of roof tarp to replace the destroyed roofs of thousands of otherwise viable homes and buildings in the region. Within a week, the Corps contractors were covering some 1,000 roofs daily.
As the city filled up, there were the scenes shown round the world of poor people---mostly Blacks---trapped on roofs or in flooded attics, pleading for help before they drowned.
Crear got a call on his private cell phone from a woman in Natchez, MS, who said her aunt, Ethel Fazande, who was a nurse to Mrs. Blum--the woman he had taught the history class with---was trapped along with six other people in an attic somewhere in New Orleans, and the water was rising.
"We had a search and rescue desk," said Crear, "and I filled out a request to send a helicopter to look for them."
But the flood had covered landmarks. There were no roads, stores, or signs for air crews to follow, and one nearly covered roof looked like another. She was not rescued that day, and Crear went about trying to save the city, not knowing if she lived or died.
Removing debris from the region posed a special problem for Crear's troops. The hurricane's winds leveled whole communities, and the water pushed the debris into huge piles. The Corps estimated the rubble exceeded 55 million cubic yards, or enough refuse to fill Yankee Stadium about 28 times, and it had to be gathered and sorted into wood and other burnable products, while material such as cars and refrigerators had to be handled separately.
Four contractors were hired for $500 million each to handle the debris removal process. The Corps established collection sites throughout the region for sorting, depositing, and ultimately building massive open pits where the stadium-sized piles would be burned. They would use an innovative technique called "wind curtain" where they dug pits to hold the burning debris, then blew wind over the 2000-degree fires to make them burn hotter and faster. The wind traps the smoke like a curtain, reducing (but not eliminating) the pollution the air. It will take months to determine the extent of particulate pollution over much of the south.
Crear's St. Louis District was tasked with keeping the Mississippi River open to navigation. By September 13, less than two weeks after the storm struck, enough debris had been removed to make this national waterway available again for shipments from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
To deal with the broken levees, Crear deployed the huge Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters to drop sandbags weighing up to 5,000 pounds (essentially small Volkswagens) in the breaches of the levees holding Lakes Pontchartrain.
"Access to the site was so difficult," he explained, "that there was no way to get materials in there other than by helicopter. ... The streets were flooded and you couldn't get through." Road-building crews were ordered to drop truckload after truckload of rock and gravel to construct roads, at a rate of 500 feet per day through 10 feet of moving water, to each of the breaches.
These new roads, essentially rock dams, were built alongside the existing levees to bolster them. When these water roads were completed, dump trucks would go directly to the site of the downed levee walls and add their loads of rock and gravel to the damming process.
And attacking by sea, Crear hired contractors who used a series of collapsible barges, which they assembled at the edges of the city and used to float tons of rock to the sites.
"The race was on," Crear said, "as to which team would get the most fill into the sites, the helicopter or the trucks or the tractors on the barges. It was all teamwork."
These temporary dams had built-in removable doors made of steel pilings. When the tide was high, the water level inside the city was actually higher than the level of the lakes. During those periods, they would open the levee doors and allow gravity to help empty water from the city.
The city had 148 massive pumps, but these were under water and useless. So Crear had portable pumps brought in to help return water to the two lakes. On Thursday, Crear's team built dams around the pump stations, insulating them from the flood so they could be dried out and restored to service.
Crear got another call. Ms. Fazande and her companions were still missing. He filled out another search and rescue request.
"It was a bad time," he said. "There were a lot of people in real trouble. And here was one that I knew. I could only imagine, being as hot as it was, being trapped in an attic and the water rising and not being able to get out."
He knew about the thousands of mostly Black men, women, and children trapped in the nightmare of the Convention Center and stadium, and urged his crews to speed up their efforts to stem the flood so they could be rescued.
"For me," he said, "there was a sense of urgency to stop the flooding so we could begin the process of recovery. There was an emotional part to it---knowing that people could not get out. You know people down there and imagine what is happening to them."
He got a call at the end of the day from Ms. Fazande's niece in Natchez.
"She said Ms. Ethel and the others were rescued and were on a bus for Dallas," he said. "It made me feel good having a hand in their rescue. That was a high for me."
By the end of the second week, the race was over and the breaches in the levees were filled with the mixture of sandbags and rock. In time, these will be replaced by the Corps with permanent structures, though no decisions have been made as to what the new structures will be.
It was clear, at that point, that Crear and his team had won the first round. But shortly after Mayor Nagin made his announcement, he had to rescind it as Hurricane Rita headed towards the Texas and Louisiana coasts. Crear's temporary repairs were capable of withstanding a small storm surge, perhaps a bit more than three feet. But Rita's 150-m.p.h. winds created a storm surge of more than eight feet of water, and the Industrial Canal levees were overtopped and eroded again. This single breach filled the 9th Ward, the city's poorest and lowest section, with 8 to 10 feet of water.
This time, however, the repair network was already in place, and it would take only three days to restore the temporary levee and two weeks to pump out the water.
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