National Geographic
Mon Sep 5, 2005 14:39


Last year, National Geographic did a story on what would be likely to
happen if a powerful hurricane hit New Orleans. Its conclusions were
eerily accurate.

Equally scary, it paints a frightening picture of changes in the waters
near New Orleans. Given its conclusions, it appears to have been only
a matter of time before disaster struck.

You'll find the story at:


Published on: September 11, 2001

The surge of a Category 5 storm could put New Orleans under 18 ft. of water.

They don't bury the dead in New Orleans. The highest point in the city is only 6
ft. above sea level, which makes for watery graves. Fearful that rotting corpses
caused epidemics, the city limited ground burials in 1830. Mausoleums built on
soggy cemetery grounds became the final resting place for generations. Beyond
providing a macabre tourist attraction, these "cities of the dead" serve as a
reminder of the Big Easy's vulnerability to flooding. The reason water rushes
into graves is because New Orleans sits atop a delta made of unconsolidated
material that has washed down the Mississippi River.

Think of the city as a chin jutting out, waiting for a one-two punch from Mother
Nature. The first blow comes from the sky. Hurricanes plying the Gulf of Mexico
push massive domes of water (storm surges) ahead of their swirling winds. After
the surges hit, the second blow strikes from below. The same swampy delta ground
that necessitates above-ground burials leaves water from the storm surge with no
place to go but up.

The fact that New Orleans has not already sunk is a matter of luck. If slightly
different paths had been followed by Hurricanes Camille, which struck in August
1969, Andrew in August 1992 or George in September 1998, today we might need
scuba gear to tour the French Quarter.

"In New Orleans, you never get above sea level, so you're always going to be
isolated during a strong hurricane," says Kay Wilkins of the southeast
Louisiana chapter of the American Red Cross.

During a strong hurricane, the city could be inundated with water blocking all
streets in and out for days, leaving people stranded without electricity and
access to clean drinking water. Many also could die because the city has few
buildings that could withstand the sustained 96- to 100-mph winds and 6- to
8-ft. storm surges of a Category 2 hurricane. Moving to higher elevations would
be just as dangerous as staying on low ground. Had Camille, a Category 5 storm,
made landfall at New Orleans, instead of losing her punch before arriving, her
winds would have blown twice as hard and her storm surge would have been three
times as high.

Yet knowing all this, area residents have made their potential problem worse.
"Over the past 30 years, the coastal region impacted by Camille has changed
dramatically. Coastal erosion combined with soaring commercial and residential
development in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have all combined to
significantly increase the vulnerability of the area," says Sandy Ward
Eslinger, of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's
Coastal Services Center in Charleston, S.C.

Early Warning
Emergency planners believe that it is a foregone conclusion that the Big Easy
someday will be hit by a scouring storm surge. And, given the tremendous amount
of coastal-area development, this watery "big one" will produce a staggering
amount of damage. Yet, this doesn't necessarily mean that there will be a
massive loss of lives.

The key is a new emergency warning system developed by Gregory Stone, a
professor at Louisiana State University (LSU). It is called WAVCIS, which
stands for wave-current surge information system. Within 30 minutes to an hour
after raw data is collected from monitoring stations in the Gulf, an assessment
of storm-surge damage would be available to emergency planners. Disaster relief
agencies then would be able to mobilize resources--rescue personnel, the Red
Cross, and so forth.

The $4.5 million WAVCIS project, which is now coming on line, will fill a major
void in the Louisiana storm warning system, which was practically nonexistent
compared to those of other Gulf Coast states. A system of 20 "weather buoys"
along the U.S. coastline serves as a warning system for the Gulf of Mexico.
However, the buoys are not distributed evenly and Louisiana falls into one of
the gaps. From the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Louisiana-Texas
border, there are no buoys. Only one buoy serves Louisiana, and it is 62 miles
east of the Mississippi River and more than 300 miles to the south. So it's a
bit like predicting the weather in Boston when your thermometer is in
Philadelphia. The other buoys are near the coastlines of Texas, Mississippi,
Alabama and Florida, and several hundred miles out into the Gulf.

Stable Platforms
One reason that WAVCIS will be more accurate is that its sensors are attached to
offshore oil platforms. The older, floating buoys ride up and down with the
waves and often can't give accurate pictures of wave heights and storm surges.
Stable platforms mean that the sensors can be placed above and below the water,
allowing more precise measurements. Data from each of the 13 stations, five of
which are now on line, is transmitted to LSU, where it'll be interpreted and
sent to emergency planners centers, via the Internet.

"With this new system [WAVCIS], we get to see real information on storm surge
and we can feed that into our models and come up with real data," says Mike
Brown, assistant director of the New Orleans emergency management office.

Because large areas would have to be evacuated, false alarms could be harmful to
the economy. Stone sees it as a reasonable tradeoff.

"It's better to have that frustration than the loss of life. The potential loss
of life in Louisiana could be catastrophic because there is just nowhere to
What we have is a Republican war for oil company profits while New
Orleans sinks beneath the waters.

The criticism - both explicit and implicit - has seen partisan loyalties break down, as even local senior Republicans have let slip their frustration with the country's leadership. Among them has been Louisiana's Republican Congressman Charles W Boustany who said he had spent two days urging the Bush administration to send help. 'I started making calls and trying to impress upon the White House and others that something needed to be done,' he said. 'The state resources were being overwhelmed, and we needed direct federal assistance, command and control, and security - all three of which are lacking.'

Suite 3221 CEBA Building
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70803
tel: (225) 578-4813
fax: (225) 578-7646

New Orleans is under new management: Bacteria, disease-spreading mosquitoes, and rats snakes & gators are now calling the shots.


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