Big Blow in the Big Easy
The city's levees, meanwhile, aren't intended to protect from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane (a 5 has winds greater than 155 mph and storm surges above 18 feet), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is at least a decade away from upgrading to that level of protection. The corps says the current levee system doesn't provide full protection from even Category 3 storms, which could be the scariest scenario of all. "If a Category 5 storm enters the Gulf, I don't think we'll have to encourage people to leave--it'll be an easy sell," says New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin. Category 3 or 4 storms, though, "are more dangerous . . . the community says, 'We might ride this out.'"
In the wake of Ivan, that attitude may have gained momentum. An estimated 600,000 fleeing New Orleans residents clogged highways, making the 80-mile trip to Baton Rouge a 10-hour ordeal. The Louisiana State Police recently unveiled a new evacuation plan that kicks in 50 hours before a hurricane is forecast to hit. Still, polls show the longer people have lived in New Orleans, the less likely they are to evacuate. "If it's going to happen, it's going to happen," says Ray Newman, 70, who kept his French Quarter bar, the Chart Room, open on the day Ivan was expected to strike last year. "But I'm an optimist."