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Preparing for Category Five

The first warning shot came in 1969.

Sound from an old newscast with Walter Cronkite on CBS:

"The remnants of killer Hurricane Camille continue to spread death and destruction today, triggering flash floods in Virginia…"

Hurricane Andrew, August 23, 1992. Photo: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Hurricane Camille shook the country, it was one of those rare Category Five storms, and here's the problem: When the government built the levees to protect New Orleans, they designed them to handle much smaller storms. Government officials did not expect that such a massive hurricane would hit the city in our lifetimes.

Sound from old newscast:

"The country's chief hurricane experts declared today that Hurricane Camille was the greatest storm of any kind ever to hit the nation..."

It missed New Orleans, but only by a hundred miles, which suggested that officials had been short sighted.

Then another Category Five storm hit the country in the early 1990s - remember Hurricane Andrew? Now officials in Louisiana started to worry more about New Orleans.

They got still another warning just a few years ago.

Sound from newscast:

"Forecasters are saying that Hurricane Georges could hit New Orleans with 115 mile an hour winds. Thousands packed up and moved out, clogging evacuation routes."

And that taught everybody a troubling lesson. Joe Suhayda, the scientist with the big stick, drives me through the city to explain.

"Well, Hurricane Georges was one for which the track had the potential of flooding the city. So the people were given a mandatory order to evacuate the city," says Suhayda.

Government officials have begun to plan for evacuation. Photo: William Brangham/NOW with Bill Moyers

And government officials had made elaborate plans so the population could evacuate smoothly. We keep passing blue street signs marked Hurricane Evacuation Route. The government had organized fleets of busses, to rescue tens-of-thousands of people who didn't have cars. At the last minute, Hurricane Georges faded to a weaker storm and it veered away, which was lucky. Because the evacuation was a fiasco.

"And what happened to the people that did evacuate is that they got into massive traffic jams and many of them spent the worst part of the hurricane either on the highway—stopped— or had pulled off to the side of the road," remembers Suhayda.

Now supposing the hurricane had really walloped New Orleans? Here are all of these thousands and thousands of people in their cars trapped on the side of the road. What would happen to them?

"Many of our evacuation routes are subject to flooding," says Suhayda. "And they would be washed away, and there would be really no way for help—that is the emergency services people—to get to them to help them."

The Natural Buffer Disappears

And there's another reason why scientists worry more about hurricanes every single year. There's always been a huge natural buffer that helps protect New Orleans from storms. There are miles of wetlands between here and the Gulf of Mexico: they slow hurricanes down as they blow in from the sea. But that buffer is disappearing. Every year, a chunk of wetlands the size of Manhattan crumbles and turns into open water.

Joe Suhayda explains, "So the hurricane can move closer to the city before it starts to decrease. So in effect, the city is moving closer to the Gulf as each year goes by."

And he says, it's partly because of those levees along the Mississippi River. When they stopped the river from flooding, they also prevented the wetlands from getting the regular doses of floodwater and mud that they need to survive. Studies show that if the wetlands keep vanishing over the next few decades, then you won't need a giant storm to devastate New Orleans — a much weaker, more common kind of hurricane could destroy the city too.

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