The End of New Orleans?

Hurricane Katrina is heading now right towards the city of New Orleans.

This is a Very Big Deal because New Orleans is mortally vulnerable to massive damage from a hurricane. By “massive damage”, I mean tens of thousands of dead — and, potentially, the entire downtown area being submerged underwater for good.

The short explanation why is that New Orleans sits in the bottom of a giant bowl — from decades of Army Corps of Engineers projects building levees around the city to protect the city from Mississippi River floods. A giant hurricane, though, would blow water right over those levees — which would then trap the water inside, because once the hurricane has passed, there’s nothing that’s going to blow it out again. So the bowl would fill right up, putting the city at the bottom of a lake.

Here’s a video report from PBS’ NOVA ScienceNOW that explains it in more detail, and a transcript of a 2002 report by Daniel Zwerdling for Bill Moyers’ NOW program on just how serious the risk to the city is:

WALTER MAESTRI: A couple of days ago we actually had an exercise where we brought a fictitious Category Five hurricane–
WALTER MAESTRI: –the absolute worst, into the metropolitan area…
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Walter Maestri is basically the czar of public emergencies in Jefferson Parish. It’s the biggest suburb in the region.
WALTER MAESTRI: Well, when the exercise was completed it was evident that we were going to lose a lot of people we changed the name of the storm from Delaney to K-Y-A-G-B… kiss your ass goodbye… because anybody who was here as that Category Five storm came across… was gone.

Katrina is a Category Five storm.

New Orleans is in the process of being evacuated. Interstate 10, which runs north from the city, has all lanes given over to traffic heading out of town, and it’s still gridlocked. Residents who don’t have cars are being instructed to take shelter in the Superdome.

I think it’s safe to say that all the nation’s thoughts and prayers are with the people of New Orleans as they race to escape Katrina’s trap. Here’s hoping this storm isn’t the K-Y-A-G-B storm — and that, if the city pulls through, maybe it gets the state and Federal governments to take seriously the need to look at what levee construction and loss of wetlands have done to put people at risk before the next crisis.

UPDATE: This from Dr. Jeff Masters at Weather Underground:

I put the odds of New Orleans getting its levees breached and the city submerged at about 70%… I recommend that if you are trapped in New Orleans tomorrow, that you wear a life jacket and a helmet if you have them.


UPDATE: John Robb found this story from last year about the Superdome’s suitability as an emergency shelter:

It appears a facility as large as the Dome could hold up in hurricane conditions but Bill Curl, spokesman for the Superdome, says that is yet to be tested and if there is no other choice then maybe the Dome could serve as a shelter.
“Only in dire emergencies. The Superdome is not a shelter,” said Curl.

Yet to be tested? Jesus — there’s thousands of people in there right now. I hope the Powers That Be knew what they were doing telling people to take shelter there.

UPDATE (8/29/2005): Looks like those concerns about the Superdome were not misplaced — part of the roof has come off:

New Orleans, braced for a catastrophic direct hit from the powerful Category 4 storm, hunkered nearly 10,000 people in its mammoth Superdome, but Ed Reams of CNN affiliate WDSU reported that the structure has begun leaking as the winds damaged the roof letting daylight and rainwater in the darkened arena.
“I can see daylight straight up from inside the Superdome,” Reams reported.
National Guard troops moved people to the other side of the dome. Others were moving beneath the concrete-reinforced terrace level.
“This is only going to get bigger,” he said. “We have another two hours before the worst of the storm gets to us.”

UPDATE (8/29/2005): Jeff Masters at Weather Underground says now that a last-minute change in Katrina’s course means that New Orleans may be spared the worst:

On this course, the western edge of the eyewall will pass some 20 miles to the east of New Orleans, sparing that city a catastrophic hit. As the eye passes east of the city later this morning, north winds of about 100 mph will push waters from Lake Pontchartrain up to the top of the levee protecting the city, and possibly breach the levee and flood the city. This flooding will not cause the kind of catastrophe that a direct hit by the right (east) eyewall would have, with its 140 mph winds and 15-20 foot storm surge. New Orleans will not suffer large loss of life from Katrina.

FINAL UPDATE (8/29/2005): Well, it looks like Dr. Masters was right — that last minute turn to the east appears to have saved New Orleans from the worst case scenario. They still have a huge amount of damage to deal with — authorities are telling people who fled the storm not to come home for at least a week — but it’s not the end of New Orleans after all, thank God.

The question is, will the next one be? How many near misses will it take to get someone to take the threat seriously and start preparing the city adequately — before it’s too late?


Sandy Smith

August 28, 2005
4:27 pm

Indeed. Having gone through a category 4 hurricane (as well as a few smaller ones, notably David in ’77ish), I have a lot of sympathy for those guys. That being said, I was 200 miles inland and Hugo was unusually long-lived once it hit land. This has been the elephant in the room that Nawlins hasn’t wanted to talk about except when Gulf hurricanes come calling.
I’m pleasantly surprised you’re bringing this up, because there’s a weird tendency among those who haven’t been through a hurricane to think they’re “just a big storm” and “no big deal.” They are, in the way that a tsunami is “just a big wave”.

Sandy Smith

August 28, 2005
4:32 pm

Looking at the satellite pictures, Katrina has an eye eerily similar to that of Hugo–exceptionally well-defined. Hugo was still killing people by dint of wind some 300 miles inland. Bear in mind, it was only a category 4 storm. Another piece of history for our own warning: Hugo and Camille both went up the Shenandoah valley and caused deaths and destruction from flooding. And any flooding they get will be repeated here a few days later. Fortunately, our neighborhood is sufficiently high to be above most flooding.

christina oursler

August 31, 2005
1:32 am

looks like the worst case scenario has come about. The levees have broken and they can’t stop the water. I don’t think New Orleans will ever be the same. I can’t even imagine how many dead people are floating around down there. It makes me sick to my stomach. God have mercy on those people. They need to walk out, swim out, whatever they have to do.
Cm. oursler