The End of New Orleans: I Spoke Too Soon

On Monday, when it became clear that Hurricane Katrina was going to jog to the east and avoid a direct hit on the city of New Orleans — which would have resulted in catastrophic flooding and, probably, the end of that city as we know it — I said that the worst case scenario had been avoided.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that I was wrong. The worst case scenario is playing out right now.

The reason is because emergency authorities have been unable to repair breaches in the levees keeping a now-swollen Lake Pontchartrain out of the city — and water gushing through those breaches has begun to fill up the bowl that New Orleans sits at the bottom of.

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

The catastrophic flooding that filled the bowl that is New Orleans on Monday and Tuesday will only get worse over the next few days because rainfall from Hurricane Katrina continues to flow into Lake Pontchartrain from north shore rivers and streams, and east winds and a 17.5-foot storm crest on the Pearl River block the outflow water through the Rigolets and Chef Menteur Pass…
A 500-yard and growing breach in the eastern wall of the 17th Street Canal separating New Orleans from Metairie is pouring hundreds of thousands of gallons of lake water per second into the New Orleans area. Water also is flowing through two more levee breaches along the Industrial Canal, which created a Hurricane Betsy-on-steroids flood in the Lower 9th Ward on Monday that is now spreading south into the French Quarter and other parts of the city.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin warned Tuesday evening that an attempt to plug the holes in the 17th Street Canal had failed, and the floodwaters were expected to continue to rise rapidly throughout the night. Eventually, Nagin said, the water could reach as high as 3 feet above sea level, meaning it could rise to 12 to 15 feet high in some parts of the city.
Louisiana State University Hurricane Center researcher Ivor van Heerden warned that Nagin’s estimates could be too low because the lake water won’t fall quickly during the next few days.
“We don’t have the weather conditions to drive the water out of Lake Pontchartrain, and at the same time, all the rivers on the north shore are in flood,” he said. “That water is just going to keep rising in the city until it’s equal to the level of the lake.
“Unless they can use sandbags to compartmentalize the flooded areas, the water in the city will rise everywhere to the same level as the lake.

Let me reiterate. Water is pouring into New Orleans. It is not going to pour out again on its own; the only way to get it out is to pump it out. If it is not pumped out the entire city will eventually be sitting under 15, 20, or more feet of water — forever. If the levees aren’t repaired, the water is going to keep flooding in; and the higher the floodwaters get, the harder it will be to repair the levees.

This is a Very Bad Situation.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is frustrated by the quality of assistance his city has gotten in what may be the biggest natural disaster in American history:

A day after Hurricane Katrina dealt a devastating blow to the Big Easy, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Tuesday night blasted what he called a lack of coordination in relief efforts for setting behind the city’s recovery.
“There is way too many fricking … cooks in the kitchen,” Nagin said in a phone interview with WAPT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi, fuming over what he said were scuttled plans to plug a 200-yard breach near the 17th Street Canal, allowing Lake Pontchartrain to spill into the central business district. An earlier breach occurred along the Industrial Canal in the city’s Lower 9th Ward.
The National Weather Service reported a breach along the Industrial Canal levee at Tennessee Street, in southeast New Orleans, on Monday. Local reports later said the levee was overtopped, not breached, but the Corps of Engineers reported it Tuesday afternoon as having been breached.
But Nagin said a repair attempt was supposed to have been made Tuesday.
According to the mayor, Black Hawk helicopters were scheduled to pick up and drop massive 3,000-pound sandbags in the 17th Street Canal breach, but were diverted on rescue missions. Nagin said neglecting to fix the problem has set the city behind by at least a month.
“I had laid out like an eight-week to ten-week timeline where we could get the city back in semblance of order. It’s probably been pushed back another four weeks as a result of this,” Nagin said.
“That four weeks is going to stop all commerce in the city of New Orleans. It also impacts the nation, because no domestic oil production will happen in southeast Louisiana.”

The failure of the emergency teams to stop the flooding from the levee break has led Governor Kathleen Blanco to call for the abandonment of the city until such time as the waters are drained:

Blanco said she wanted the Superdome — which had become a shelter of last resort for about 20,000 people — evacuated within two days, though was still unclear where the people would go. The air conditioning inside the Superdome was out, the toilets were broken, and tempers were rising in the sweltering heat. “Conditions are degenerating rapidly,” she said. “It’s a very, very desperate situation.”

Meanwhile, the breakdown of civilization across the city has led to widespread looting. The National Guard is being deployed to try and relieve the local police, who have had a rough couple of days:

Cops on the street, cut off from their superiors by a failure of the communications system, complained of chaos.
“Put this in your paper,” one officer on Canal Street said. “They told us nothing. We were unprepared. We are completely on our own.”

At least one police officer has been killed by looters so far.

So, in short: even though Katrina did not hit the city dead-on, the failure of a couple of weak levees — and the inability of authorities to plug those breaches quickly — have put the city very close to the dire situation we all feared.

(For up to the minute news from the disaster zone, check with the Times-Picayune, or you can watch live 24/7 coverage from WWL-TV.)