For years, forecasters have warned of the nightmare flooding a big storm could bring to New Orleans, a bowl-shaped city bounded by the half-mile-wide Mississippi River and massive Lake Pontchartrain.
As much as 10 feet below sea level in spots, the city is as the mercy of a network of levees, canals and pumps to keep dry.
Scientists predicted Katrina could easily overtake that levee system, swamping the city under a 30-feet cesspool of toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins that could leave more than 1 million people homeless.
"All indications are that this is absolutely worst-case scenario," Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, said Sunday afternoon.
Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard said some who have ridden out previous storms in the New Orleans area may not be so lucky this time.
"I'm expecting that some people who are die-hards will die hard," he said.
For those who were evacuated, it wasn't an easy trip. Traffic backed up bumper-to-bumper on many highways. Three nursing home being bused to a Baton Rouge church died, one aboard the bus, another at the church and the third at hospital, the local coroner said Sunday.
"These folks are pretty fragile when they're put on these buses," said Don Moreau, of the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner's Office.
Katrina was a Category 1 storm with 80-mph wind when it hit South Florida with a soggy punch Thursday that flooded neighborhoods and left nine people dead. It strengthened rapidly in the Gulf of Mexico as it headed for New Orleans.
By 1 a.m. EDT, Katrina's eye was about 90 miles south-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River and 150 miles south-southeast of New Orleans. The storm was moving toward the north-northwest at about 10 mph and was expected to turn toward the north. A hurricane warning was in effect for the north-central Gulf Coast from Morgan City, La., to the Alabama-Florida line."
The US National Weather Service states:
DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED
AT LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL
FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL...LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY
DAMAGED OR DESTROYED.
THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL.
PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. MANY WOOD
FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE
BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE...INCLUDING SOME
WALL AND ROOF FAILURE.
HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY...A
FEW POSSIBLY TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. MANY WINDOWS WILL BLOW
AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD...AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH
AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY
VEHICLES AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE
ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS...PETS...AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE
WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK.
POWER OUTAGES MAY LAST FOR WEEKS...AS MANY POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN
AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING
INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.
THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY
THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING...BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED.
In harm's way
Hurricanes are a common heritage for Louisiana residents, who until the past few decades had little choice in facing a hurricane but to ride it out and pray.
Today, billions of dollars worth of levees, sea walls, pumping systems and satellite hurricane tracking provide a comforting safety margin that has saved thousands of lives.
But modern technology and engineering mask an alarming fact: In the generations since those storms menaced Champagne's ancestors, south Louisiana has been growing more vulnerable to hurricanes, not less.
Sinking land and chronic coastal erosion — in part the unintended byproducts of flood-protection efforts — have opened dangerous new avenues for even relatively weak hurricanes and tropical storms to assault areas well inland.
"There's no doubt about it," said Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District, who maintains a hurricane levee that encircles Bayou Lafourche from Larose to the southern tip of Golden Meadow. "The biggest factor in hurricane risk is land loss. The Gulf of Mexico is, in effect, probably 20 miles closer to us than it was in 1965 when Hurricane Betsy hit."
These trends are the source of a complex and growing threat to everyone living in south Louisiana and to the regional economy and culture:
The combination of sinking land and rising seas has put the Mississippi River delta as much as 3 feet lower relative to sea level than it was a century ago, and the process continues. That means hurricane floods driven inland from the Gulf have risen by corresponding amounts. Storms that once would not have had much impact can now be devastating events, and flooding penetrates to places where it rarely occurred before. The problem also is slowly eroding levee protection, cutting off evacuation routes sooner and putting dozens of communities and valuable infrastructure at risk of being wiped off the map.
Coastal erosion has shaved barrier islands to slivers and turned marshland to open water, opening the way for hurricane winds and flooding to move inland. Hurricanes draw their strength from the sea, so they quickly weaken and begin to dissipate when they make landfall. Hurricanes moving over fragmenting marshes toward the New Orleans area can retain more strength, and their winds and large waves pack more speed and destructive power.
Though protected by levees designed to withstand the most common storms, New Orleans is surrounded by water and is well below sea level at many points. A flood from a powerful hurricane can get trapped for weeks inside the levee system. Emergency officials concede that many of the structures in the area, including newer high-rise buildings, would not survive the winds of a major storm.
The large size of the area at risk also makes it difficult to evacuate the million or more people who live in the area, putting tens of thousands of people at risk of dying even with improved forecasting and warnings. The American Red Cross will not put emergency shelters in the area because it does not want to put volunteers or evacuees in danger.
The Army Corps of Engineers says the chance of New Orleans-area levees being topped is remote, but admits the estimate is based on 40-year-old calculations. An independent analysis based on updated data and computer modeling done for The Times-Picayune suggests the risk to some areas, including St. Bernard and St. Charles parishes and eastern New Orleans, may be greater than the corps estimates. Corps officials say the agency is studying the problem with an updated model.
It all adds up to a daunting set of long-term economic, engineering and political challenges just to maintain the status quo. Higher levees, a massive coastal-restoration program and even a huge wall across New Orleans are all being proposed. Without extraordinary measures, key ports, oil and gas production, one of the nation's most important fisheries, the unique bayou culture, the historic French Quarter and more are at risk of being swept away in a catastrophic hurricane or worn down by smaller ones.
Why did no-one listen?
"Prescience sucks." So a very wise person told me yesterday, in reference to my three month old piece (now much cited, of course) about the catastrophe that could befall New Orleans from a direct Cat4 or 5 hurricane strike. I must say, I agree whole-heartedly with this individual's assessment.
But if prescience sucks, the lack of reasonable foresight is a far, far worse flaw. And I think that at least in part, the tragedy now playing itself out must be blamed on this very human shortcoming. Let me explain.
In writing my own piece about New Orleans' vulnerability I interviewed, among others, LSU hurricane expert Ivor van Heerden, one of many scientists who has been thinking about this disaster-waiting-to-happen. When you talk to van Heerden, he tends to put things in very stark terms. He has been doing so for years.
Now, even CNN has finally gotten around to talking to van Heerden, in the process of spinning out worst case scenarios for New Orleans. Here's what the scientist says:"This is what we've been saying has been going to happen for years," he said. "Unfortunately, it's coming true."
It is tragic, truly tragic, that someone like van Heerden now has to say, "I told you so." But the fact is that he did tell us so, and so did many others.
As always, Wikipedia is the best place to go for updates. Beyond feeling for the people of New Orleans, we really need to find out not what else out there are we ignoring in the same way. President Bush remains on vacation.