When emergency management officials think about the worst natural disasters that might befall America, San Francisco is always on the list. They say there's a 70 percent chance that a major earthquake will hit that city in the next 30 years and potentially cause thousands of deaths. But they say there's another disaster that could be far worseand many people don't know about it. The chances that this tragedy will happen are much lower, but the death toll would be staggering. Government officials are trying to figure out if there's any way to prevent it.
Think about the great cities in this country, and one of them will be New Orleans. On a recent evening, a scientist pulls up in the French Quarter. Joe Suhayda takes a plastic rod out of his trunk and he proceeds to show us what could happen the next time a hurricane hits New Orleans.
"OK, this is tool that I have a range rod," explains Suyhayda. "It will show us how high the water would be if we were hit with a Category Five Hurricane."
Which would mean what?
"Twenty feet of water above where we are standing now," says Suyhayda.
A Category Five Hurricane is the most powerful storm on a scientific scale. Suhayda plants the rod on the sidewalk next to a 200-year-old building that's all wrought iron balconies and faded brick and wooden shutters. Every click marks another foot that the flood would rise up this building.
I can't believe you're still going.
"Yeah, still going," says Suyhayda.
Until a couple months ago, Suhayda ran a prominent research center at Louisiana State University. They've developed the most detailed computer models that anybody's ever used to predict how hurricanes could affect this region. Studies suggest that there's roughly a one in six chance that a killer hurricane will strike New Orleans over the next 50 years.
Suhayda is still extending his stick as he describes what he is doing, "It's well above the second floor, just about to the rooftop."
It's hard to comprehend.
"Yes," agrees Suyahada, "it is really, to think that that much water would occur in this city during a catastrophic storm."
Do you expect this kind of hurricanethis kind of floodingwill hit New Orleans in our lifetime?
"Well I would say the probability is yes," says Suyahada. "In terms of past experience, we've had three storms that were near missesthat could have done at least something close to this."
Basically, the part of New Orleans that most Americansmost people around the worldthink is New Orleans, would disappear.
Suyhayda agrees, "It would, that's right."
Next: A Risky Spot