‘Mother of All Storms’ Aiming for New Orleans

By David L. Brown

Here’s the good news: Since Katrina the Army Corps of Engineers has spent billions of dollars beginning the task of girding up levees to protect the City of New Orleans should another hurricane strike.

The bad news is that the work is nowhere near complete and won’t be done until 2010 or later, while Hurricane Gustav is only about one day away. Here is the current storm track chart:

hurricane_track_models_1-1.jpg

As you can see, Gustav is presently a Category 3 storm after having passed over western Cuba as a Cat. 4. It will probably gain power as it continues across the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The “spaghetti model” shows alternative projected paths the hurricane might take according to several different weather prediction models. It is telling that all of the lines strike southern Louisiana, and the two on the right exactly bracket New Orleans. Even if Gustav follows one of the other paths, it will hit the Louisiana coast near enough to cause serious potential damage to the city, which is below sea level.

See followup comment at the bottom of the page for a report on Gustav’s actual effect.
A measure of how serious a threat is posed by Gustav can be taken from the fact that New Orleans is under a 100 percent evacuation order. As of early this morning all highways were opened to allow traffic to flow outward in all lanes, including both sides of Interstates. Mayor Ray Nagin has declared that the Super Dome will be locked and there will be no “haven of last resort.” Anyone who stays past the curfew that will be put in place later today will be on their own. There will be no rescues attempted and only a skeleton force of police will remain in the city to maintain the curfew and arrest or shoot looters on sight.

It remains to be seen whether the worst will happen, but it is not unlikely the city will take it on the chin. The storm has been described by Mayor Nagin as “the mother of all storms.” It is likely to generate a 20 foot storm surge and up to 15 inches of rain, according to weather forecasts. “This is the real deal, not a test,” FoxNews.com quoted Nagin as he issued the evacuation order Saturday night. “For everyone thinking they can ride this storm out, I have news for you: that will be one of the biggest mistakes you can make in your life.”

What will it mean if New Orleans is flooded once more? I have predicted before that a second major disaster there would almost certainly lead to at least partial abandonment of the city. Since Katrina the federal government has undertaken to invest billions of dollars to attempt to create a “100 year” levee system after Katrina, a system planned to resist a storm expected to occur only once in a century.

Should Gustav hit as another big ‘cane only three years after Katrina, and well before the upgraded levee system is complete, it would send a strong signal to write off at least low lying parts of the city. It also provides evidence that climate change has made forecasts based on past history moot. The next step should there be further attempts to “save” New Orleans would be to construct a “500 year” levee system, and yet as we have seen in the upper Mississippi River those projections no longer, er, hold water. The Midwest has seen two “500 year floods” in little more than a decade.

The climate uncertainty plus the fact that to build a 500 year levee system would cost far more than the present efforts makes it likely that much of New Orleans should be abandoned, particularly in view of the fact that 1) the city continues to sink lower while 2) ocean levels rise due to global warming. This is a lose-lose situation, folks. How many times could we afford to rebuild a city that keeps getting knocked down by one hurricane after another?

Memories are short. The levee system was upgraded to its pre-Katrina level after Hurricane Betsy flooded parts of the city back in 1965. After that, people decided it was safe to build on lower ground and many of the houses that were flooded out by Katrina were erected in areas that had been flooded by Betsy but had not at that time been developed. It was 40 years before the Betsy disaster was repeated by Katrina, and now just three years further on it looks like it may be deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra famously said.

Assuming the city will be devastated once more in the next couple of days, what would make sense going forward? I suggest that property owners in all of the lower lying areas should be paid off and relocated. All buildings should be bulldozed and those areas turned into parkland or swamp, useful to contain future storm surges. Higher, more durable levees could be built around the old French Quarter and downtown, which is on higher ground and which could be preserved as a historic district.

New port facilities could be build further upriver and the displaced population could simply be dispersed to other areas. That has already partially occurred, for even now the city’s population is about one-third lower than before Katrina due to refugees opting to remain in Houston or other cities rather than return to New Orleans.

We have heard many times that climate change can be expected to generate more violent hurricanes. Al Gore has told us so, and so have many climate scientists. Global warming deniers say that is wrong, and yet as Gustav bears down on New Orleans as “the mother of all storms,” they might have to think again.

It is likely that the Big Easy will become the first major city to be abandoned, at least partially, due to climate change. As the oceans continue to rise and storms become more frequent and more powerful, growing numbers of coastal areas will be abandoned in the decades ahead, from Bangladesh to Miami.

UPDATE: It appears that Gustav turned out not to be the “Mother of All Storms,” and perhaps only a distant cousin although right now at about noon on Monday the final toll is not certain. It does appear that NOLA will not be submerged as was the case with Katrina. The reason is that Gustav lost power as it approached land, and veered further west from the city. The storm surge at New Orleans was only about ten feed, compared with nearly twice that in the case of Katrina.

This in no way invalidates the fact that the Big Easy remains unsustainably vulnerable to another devastating flood event. In fact, insurance companies say that the average expected time before a house in the city’s below sea level areas is flooded or blown away is about thirty years, even taking the 100 year levee model at its full face value. If the models are wrong because of climate change, that could be much shorter. But for now, it looks like Gustav, although serious enough, did not meet the worst expectations.

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