Monstrous Hurricane Katrina barreled toward the Big Easy on Sunday with 165-mph wind and a threat of a 28-foot storm surge, forcing a mandatory evacuation, a last-ditch Superdome shelter and prayers for those left to face the doomsday scenario this below-sea-level city has long dreaded.
Showers began falling on southeastern Louisiana and other parts of the Gulf Coast on Sunday afternoon, accompanied by pounding surf as far east as the Florida Panhandle, the first hints of a storm with a potential surge of 18 to 28 feet, even bigger waves and as much as 15 inches of rain.
"We are facing a storm that most of us have long feared," Mayor C. Ray Nagin said in ordering the mandatory evacuation for his city of 485,000 people, surrounded by suburbs of a million more. "The storm surge will most likely topple our levee system."
Needless to say, the situation is bad.
Conceding that as many as 100,000 inner-city residents didn't have the means to leave and an untold number of tourists were stranded by the closing of the airport, the city arranged buses to take people to 10 last-resort shelters, including the Superdome.
This what Katrina will do
The storm surge — water pushed into a mound by hurricane winds — would pour over the Pontchartrain levee and flood the city. A severe hurricane could push floodwaters inside the New Orleans bowl as high as 20-30 feet, covering most homes and the first three or four stories of buildings in the city, he says. "This brings a great risk of casualties."
In this type of scenario the metro area could be submerged for more than 10 weeks, says Walter S. Maestri, Director of Emergency Management for Jefferson Parish, which encompasses more than half of the city. In those 10 weeks, residents would need drinking water, food and a dry place to live.
Besides the major problems flooding would bring, there is also concern about a potentially explosive and deadly problem. Suhayda says flooding of the whole city could easily mix industrial and household chemicals into a toxic and volatile mix. Coupled with an estimated 100,000 tons of sediment, a cleanup could take several months. In the worst case scenario, the mix of toxic chemicals could make some areas of the city uninhabitable. "It could take several years for the city to recover fully, economically, from a strong hurricane," says Suhayda.
What's the worst case scanerio?
Estimates have been made of tens of thousands of deaths from flooding that could overrun the levees and turn New Orleans into a 30-foot-deep toxic lake filled with chemicals and petroleum from refineries, and waste from ruined septic systems.
A stronger storm on a slightly different course -- such as the path Georges was on just 16 hours before landfall -- could have realized emergency officials' worst-case scenario: hundreds of billions of gallons of lake water pouring over the levees into an area averaging 5 feet below sea level with no natural means of drainage.
That would turn the city and the east bank of Jefferson Parish into a lake as much as 30 feet deep, fouled with chemicals and waste from ruined septic systems, businesses and homes. Such a flood could trap hundreds of thousands of people in buildings and in vehicles. At the same time, high winds and tornadoes would tear at everything left standing. Between 25,000 and 100,000 people would die, said John Clizbe, national vice president for disaster services with the American Red Cross.
"A catastrophic hurricane represents 10 or 15 atomic bombs in terms of the energy it releases," said Joseph Suhayda, a Louisiana State University engineer who is studying ways to limit hurricane damage in the New Orleans area. "Think about it. New York lost two big buildings. Multiply that by 10 or 20 or 30 in the area impacted and the people lost, and we know what could happen."
Let's hope it doesn't come to that!
My Prayers are with all of the New Orleans people.
Dave, buddy, I hope you will be safe.