When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans today, it could turn one of America's most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic...

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When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans today, it could turn one of America’s most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city’s legendary cemeteries.

Experts have warned for years that the levees and pumps that usually keep the city dry have no chance against a direct hit by a Category 5 storm.

That’s exactly what Katrina was as it churned toward the city. With top winds of 160 mph and the power to lift sea level by as much as 28 feet above normal, the storm threatened an environmental disaster of biblical proportions, one that could leave more than 1 million people homeless.

“All indications are that this is absolutely worst-case scenario,” Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, said yesterday.

The center’s latest computer simulations indicate that by tomorrow, vast swaths of New Orleans could be under water up to 30 feet deep. In the French Quarter, the water could reach 20 feet, easily submerging the district’s cast-iron balconies and bars.

Estimates predict that 60 percent to 80 percent of the city’s houses will be destroyed by wind. With the flood damage, most of the people who live in and around New Orleans could be homeless.

“We’re talking about in essence having — in the continental United States — having a refugee camp of a million people,” van Heerden said.

“New Orleans is never going to be the same,” National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield told The Miami Herald.

Aside from Hurricane Andrew, which struck Miami in 1992, forecasters have no experience with Category 5 hurricanes hitting densely populated areas.

“Hurricanes rarely sustain such extreme winds for much time. However we see no obvious large-scale effects to cause a substantial weakening of the system and it is expected that the hurricane will be of Category 4 or 5 intensity when it reaches the coast,” National Hurricane Center meteorologist Richard Pasch said.

As they raced to put meteorological instruments in Katrina’s path, wind engineers had little idea what their equipment would record.

“We haven’t seen something this big since we started the program,” said Kurt Gurley, a University of Florida engineering professor who works for the Florida Coastal Monitoring Program, which uses mobile weather stations to make detailed measurements of hurricane-wind conditions.

Experts have warned about New Orleans’ vulnerability for years, chiefly because Louisiana has lost more than a million acres of coastal wetlands in the past seven decades. The vast patchwork of swamps and bayous south of the city serves as a buffer, partially absorbing the surge of water that a hurricane pushes ashore.

Levees won’t help

Experts have also warned that the ring of high levees around New Orleans, designed to protect the city from floodwaters coming down the Mississippi, will only make things worse in a powerful hurricane. Katrina is expected to push a 28-foot storm surge against the levees. Even if they hold, water will pour over their tops and begin filling the city as if it were a sinking canoe.

After the storm passes, the water will have nowhere to go.

In a few days, van Heerden predicts, emergency-management officials are going to be wondering how to handle a giant stagnant pond contaminated with building debris, coffins, sewage and other hazardous materials.

“We’re talking about an incredible environmental disaster,” van Heerden said.

He puts much of the blame for New Orleans’ dire situation on the very levee system that is designed to protect southern Louisiana from Mississippi River floods.

Before the levees were built, the river would top its banks during floods and wash through a maze of bayous and swamps, dropping fine-grained silt that nourished plants and kept the land just above sea level.

The levees “have literally starved our wetlands to death” by directing all of that precious silt out into the Gulf of Mexico, van Heerden said.

It has been 40 years since New Orleans faced a hurricane even comparable to Katrina. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy, a Category 3 storm, submerged some parts of the city to a depth of 7 feet.

Since then, the Big Easy has had nothing but sideswipes. In 1998, Hurricane Georges headed straight for New Orleans, then swerved at the last minute to strike Mississippi and Alabama. Hurricane Lili blew out its strength at the mouth of the Mississippi in 2002. And last year’s Hurricane Ivan obligingly curved to the east as it came ashore, barely grazing a grateful city.

Louisiana historically has had weak building codes and questionable enforcement. New Orleans’ housing stock is virtually all wood-framed, and often aged and dilapidated. Many structures have been weakened by a relentless exotic termite infestation.

The prevalent hurricane code in Louisiana has been what engineers consider the bare minimum — that buildings be designed to withstand 100-mph winds.

Homes are doomed

“There’s a lot of older homes, most of these homes are below sea level, most of these homes are termite ridden,” said Capt. Lou Robinson, a training instructor with the City of New Orleans Fire Department. “The newer homes, construction-wise, they just meet minimum requirements. You know, just for cost effectiveness, they scrimp. The roofs are manufactured with trusses or lightweight metal but they just don’t hold up under extreme conditions.”

Worst-case scenario? The city could lose half its homes, Robinson said.

Robinson said he doesn’t expect to have a home after the storm passes. He built his home in 2000 himself to the strongest codes, but it’s outside of the levee system.

“It’s just not going to handle this level of wind and water,” he said.

Levitan noted that a new state task force was supposed to meet for the first time this week to begin developing recommendations for strengthening Louisiana’s building codes and practices.

“Our thought was we could be proactive and not have to wait until after we got smacked,” Levitan said. “I guess that’s not going to happen.”

Information from the Miami Herald on building codes is included in this report