PART III of Nature's Revenge: Louisiana's Vanishing Wetlands from American RadioWorks®, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR NewsSM. On the Internet at

September 2002

Hurricane Risk to New Orleans

by Daniel Zwerdling

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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 worse—and 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 hurricane—this kind of flooding—will 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 misses—that could have done at least something close to this."

Basically, the part of New Orleans that most Americans—most people around the world—think is New Orleans, would disappear.

Suyhayda agrees, "It would, that's right."

A Risky Spot

And just across the Mississippi River, Walter Maestri is struggling to help New Orleans prepare. Maestri is the czar of public emergencies in Jefferson Parish (that's the county that sprawls across a third of the metropolitan area). He points to a map of the region on the wall of his command post.

"A couple of days ago," explains Maestri, "We actually had an exercise where we brought a fictitious Category Five Hurricane into the metropolitan area."

The map is covered with arrows and swirls in erasable marker. They show how the fictitious hurricane crossed Key West and then smacked into New Orleans.

When the computer models showed Maestri what would happen next, he wrote big letters on the map, all in capitals.

"KYAGB—kiss your ass good bye," reads Maestri.

"Because," says Maestri, "anyone who was here when that storm came across was gone—it was body-bag time. We think 40,000 people could lose their lives in the metropolitan area."

And some scientists say that figure is conservative. People have known for centuries that New Orleans is a risky spot — the biggest river in North America wraps around it; and most of the land is below sea level. But researchers say they've been learning just how grave the problem is, only in the last few years. And they say the city and the nation aren't prepared to handle it.

To begin to understand why, we clamber up the levees along the Mississippi River. Our guide is Oliver Houck, who runs the environment program at Tulane University Law School.

Houck describes it, "There's no place in the world that has a levee system that is as extensive as this one—it's a monster system."

The U.S. Army built this monster system we're standing on. Since the late 1800s, the Army Corps of Engineers has built more than 2,000 miles of high, grassy embankments, along the Mississippi and its branches.

"This levee system is to levees around the world, the way that the Great Wall of China is to walls around the world," continues Houck. "There are other walls and then there is The Wall. There are other levees and then there is The Levee system.

The Army built it because storms over the Mississippi used to cause massive floods. Back in the 1920s, the river gushed over its banks and killed thousands of people and forced a million to abandon their homes.

"It was always thought that the big threat of flooding in New Orleans was the river—and it was—because it flooded regularly," explains Houck. "So we beat flooding by taming the river. The irony of history has been that we—like one of those old citadels in an adventure story— defended ourselves against the enemy that we knew, which was the river, but to the rear and to the flank was this other threat, which we are only now beginning to appreciate, and it may be too late to prevent.

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 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.

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.

A Metropolitan Soup Bowl

That's why Walter Maestri and his colleagues are getting ready at the emergency command center in Jefferson Parish. He says if the hurricane comes, they'll seal themselves inside.

"This is the communications center here—at every station we've got fire, we've got emergency medical, National Guard…" explains Maestri.

Maestri says imagine what happens if a huge storm hits just to the east of the city.

"The hurricane is spinning counter-clockwise, it's now got a wall of water in front of it some 30 to 40 feet high, as it approaches the levees that surround the city, it tops those levees," describes Maestri. "The water comes over the top - and first the communities on the west side of the Mississippi river go under. Now Lake Ponchetrain— which is on the eastern side of the community—now that water from Lake Ponchetrain is now pushed on the population that is fleeing from the western side, and everybody's caught in the middle. The bowl now completely fills and we've got the entire community under water, some 20 to 30 feet under water."

Remember all those levees that the U.S. Army built around New Orleans, to hold smaller floods out of the bowl? Maestri says now those levees would doom the city, because they'll trap the water in.

"It's going to look like a massive shipwreck," says Maestri. "Everything that the water has carried in is going to be there. It's going to have to be cleaned out— alligators, moccasins and god knows what that lives in the surrounding swamps, has now been flushed -literally—into the metropolitan area. And they can't get out, because they're inside the bowl now. No water to drink, no water to use for sanitation purposes. All of the sanitation plants are under water and of course, the material is floating free in the community. The petrochemicals that are produced up and down the Mississippi river—much of that has floated into this bowl... The biggest toxic waste dump in the world now is the city of New Orleans because of what has happened."

Planning for Disaster

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers runs its own command post right on the banks of the river. And federal officials have ordered them to figure out, 'What would it take after a disaster to get New Orleans back in shape?'

You'll find the Army Corps's chief researcher Jay Combe behind a warren of gray cubicles; he's assembling his findings in a three-ring notebook.

"Each of these maps shows a different area," says Combe. "This shows where you flew in ... "

Combe says nobody in America has confronted these issues across an entire city. Not after an earthquake. Not after floods. Not after September 11.

"Street signs will be gone," he explains, "things that you know like, 'I'm going to go down to the corner of Broadway and St. Charles'—that place won't be there anymore."

So he's mapping the crucial structures in the city with longitude and latitude, because he says emergency crews will have to use navigation devices just to find where they are.

Combe looks like Santa Claus with a tie. It's especially unnerving to hear him talk about disaster. He's trying to figure out, for instance, how will emergency workers start working in a city that's drowned in an 80-mile lake? New Orleans has protected itself from past floods partly with the levees, but the city also operates one of the biggest pumping systems on earth. There are giant turbines all across town, and every time there's a major rain, they suck up the water and pump it out. Combes says that system won't work after a huge hurricane.

"The problem," says Combe, "is that the city's been underwater. And the whole city has to be drained by the pumps, and since the pumps have been under the water, the pumps are flooded. They don't operate now— we have to get the pumps back in operation and in order to get the pumps back in order, we have to get the water out of the city."

Sounds like a Catch 22.

"That's correct."

Terrible Devastation

Researcher Jay Combe has reached a troubling conclusion. He's told his supervisors at the Army Corps of Engineers that if The Hurricane hits New Orleans, most of the buildings in the city would probably be destroyed. If the water didn't demolish them, the hurricane's horrific winds would. And Combe says that raises a question: How many people would die?

Some researchers say 40,000. Some say 20,000. This Army Corps researcher says those figures are probably too low.

Combe worries, "I think of a terrible disaster. I think of 100,000."

Do you dream sometimes about a hurricane?

"It's strange you should ask that," answers Combe. "I had a dream the other night about flooding, and it's unusual because I don't usually have bad dreams. I can't really remember the dream except that water was coming down a slope. I don't remember much of it, fortunately. I don't want to remember."

Federal officials are so stunned by these sorts of findings that they're rethinking their assumptions about New Orleans. Officials in the U.S. Army say, 'There's got to be a way to prevent some of that devastation.' So they'll study whether they should build more levees and build them higher. They'll study whether the region needs new highways, so people can evacuate faster.

Critics say, 'We don't need more construction, we need less.'

Oliver Houck from Tulane University says, "Stop the foolishness of permitting yet more residential development. We are granting permits every week for new subdivisions right in the path of where this stuff is going to go. We're still covering those people with flood insurance, Daniel."

And state and federal officials are asking Congress to launch a massive project to restore the region's natural defenses. They want billions of dollars to try to rebuild some of the crumbling wetlands, which buffer New Orleans from hurricanes raging up from the Gulf. Scientists say that's the best way to save the city: make that ancient shield of wetlands strong again.

But even if the country started those projects tomorrow, it would take decades to see results. Scientists like Joe Suhayda say they can't wait that long to protect New Orleans. So he's pushing a stopgap idea. Some people say it's sort of nutty.

The Haven

"It's a lifeboat," explains Suhayda. "And the lifeboat is there because it anticipates, at some point, possibly, the main ship is going to sink."

Some scientists believe that if a huge storm hits New Orleans, the city would have to be abandoned. Bulldoze the rubble, rebuild someplace else. But Suhayda thinks they could save a piece of it. He wants the nation to build a massive wall around the downtown heart of New Orleans. It would be like the giant walls that protected medieval cities. It'd be almost three stories high, and miles around. It would enclose the French Quarter and government buildings, and a hospital and housing. If a monster hurricane comes, at least that part of the city could survive. Suhayda calls it 'the community haven.' He shows me a small example.

"What we're on now is a concrete wall that is of the type that I was suggesting as a community haven," explains Suhayda.

This one's about 20 feet high, with grassy slopes. It shields the nearby houses from the lake, sort of like a gated community. There's a pair of huge solid-steel gates—like a bank vault—at the entrance to the neighborhood.

"So," says Suhayda, "we would have a wall of this type, maybe a little bit higher, that would enclose the community haven. "

Suhayda pictures the scenario unfolding like a disaster movie: the forecast comes in, a giant hurricane's approaching, and government officials sound the alarm: 'Get to the haven, if you can.'

"And so through gates like this, people would come in buses, walking or automobiles and get behind the wall," describes Suhayda.

Is there a siren saying, 'Everybody get inside the gate! Two minutes left! One minute left! '?

"You're exactly right," says Suhayda. "It would come down to a critical last few minutes. I can imagine people trying to carry their dogs and their prized possessions and fighting winds, that at this point would be very very strong. Some people probably falling down and needing help and maybe there'd be crews that would actually go out and try to assist these people. But there'd come a time when a decision would have to be made to stop any entrance to the haven."


We've tried to find scientists who'd say that the predictions you've heard in this story will probably never come true. We haven't been able to find them.

The main debate seems to be: Should the government spend billions of dollars to try to protect a city from a disaster that might not happen?

Remember, scientists say the odds are something like one in six that a hurricane will hit New Orleans over the next 50 years.

Walter Maestri says, maybe the city will be lucky. He says on the other hand, if a killer hurricane does strike New Orleans, then you and the rest of the nation's taxpayers will have to pay the mind-boggling costs of dealing with the carnage and destruction.

"One of the things that's frustrating now for all of us in my business," explains Maestri, "is that if that Category Five Hurricane comes to New Orleans, 50,000 people could lose their lives. Now that is significantly larger than any estimates that we would have of individuals who might lose their lives from a terrorist attack. When you start to do that kind of calculus - and it's horrendous that you have to do that kind of calculus - it appears to those of us in emergency management, that the risk is much more real and much more significant, when you talk about hurricanes. I don't know that anybody, though, psychologically, has come to grip with that: that the French Quarter of New Orleans could be gone."

As you stroll through New Orleans, it seems like people who live here have come to grips, in a way. Their TV stations and newspapers run big stories about how their world might disappear. Most say they wouldn't live anyplace else.

Residents of New Orleans, Louisiana:

"My name is Patricia. I came here from Texas, set one foot in the French Quarter, and said, Oh yes, this is where I want to be."

"If you like drive through New Orleans, you have like this really great smell. Instantly you're hungry - it's like good barbecue, good gumbo, good Cajun food."

"It's like living in another country."

"Bourbon Street is wild. It's wild."

"If you walk in the night or during a fog, it's 17th century."

"That's my jazz band."

"Of course, if we ever get a hurricane—that's it."

"If there were a hurricane here, a real one, the city would be underwater in a moment."

"But I wouldn't evacuate the city!"

"Seems like every time you look at a hurricane coming, you think, it's going to hit you, then it don't."

"They'd never be able to get this place evacuated. I'd stay right here. The worst I could do is die."

"When god says something's going to happen to you, it's going to happen anyway."

"I was here when they thought Georges was coming through. I thought—well, I'll live and die in New Orleans. It's better than living and dying in Dallas."