Engineer Halcrow and QS Gleeds lead calls for British consultants to go and help devastated city

British engineers and consultants are to fly out to New Orleans to carry out crucial recovery and engineering work in the aftermath of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Engineer Halcrow and cost consultant Gleeds are two of the firms that are sending experts from offices around the world to the stricken city. The death toll from the disaster is now thought to be about 10,000.

As Building went to press, Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans had ordered all residents to leave the city or be forcibly evacuated.

The move came as the US Army Corps of Engineers said it could take up to three months to drain the city.

Roland Grzybek, the Halcrow director responsible for flood defences, said staff had been asked to volunteer to join the firm’s American office. This is working with the US authorities on a series of projects to remedy the immediate situation, and in the longer term to reduce the threat of future floods. Staff will be assigned to the office for periods of up to 60 days at a time.

Grzybek, who is based in London, said: “Our US operation is working with local government in the US to help with relief work and engineering, and also flood risk reduction work looking at the designs of the levees.

“An internal advert has been posted by the US operation calling for volunteers for the assignment.”

We will have to set up an office so that we can handle the volume of work

Chris Soffe, director, Gleeds

Grzybek said that the staff recruited to the New Orleans project would need to have a high level of expertise to cope with conditions in the area. He said: “We want to send people who are well qualified. They must be able to meet the demands of the situation.”

Once the immediate relief work is under control, Halcrow will work with the US authorities to assess the ability of the city’s defences to protect against further flooding. It is understood that two of the city’s large dams, or levees, were breached in the disaster; one has been held open to let the flood waters recede. The US Army Corps of Engineers is on standby to close the dam in an emergency.

Grzybek said: “The US authorities must look at the conditions of the flood defences. They need to know the exact condition of the existing defences, and assess what is available and where. I think these defences will largely be reinstated, but in the future the authorities will need to set up a more effective flood warning system and flood management procedure.”

The US branch of Gleeds is also gearing up to send staff from its international operations to the area as it prepares to assess the extent of the damage caused by the disaster, which is estimated at about £25bn.

Director Chris Soffe said: “We can’t enter the area yet as they are still removing dead bodies, and the National Guard won’t let anyone in. But we’re already getting calls, and we will have to set the office up so that we can handle the volume of work.”

Soffe added that Gleeds was also considering offering work to local consultancy professionals made homeless by the disaster. He said: “There will be displaced cost estimators and cost engineers from New Orleans who may want work and somewhere to live. It is something I am looking at.”