Big Blow in the Big Easy
Tropical Storm Cindy unleashed 4 inches of rain and 70-mile-per-hour winds here last week, but it could have been worse: Cindy passed the city to the east and never achieved hurricane status.
Time to breathe easy in the Big Easy? Hardly. By week's end, Hurricane Dennis was barreling toward the Gulf of Mexico. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that up to five major hurricanes could spiral through the Caribbean and the Gulf this season, any one of which could spell doom here. "If a hurricane comes next month," says Ivor van Heerden, director of Louisiana State University's Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes, "New Orleans could no longer exist."
If that sounds far-fetched, consider this: New Orleans sits below sea level and is locked in by an extensive levee network, like a giant flood-prone bowl; a modest Category 3 storm could deposit up to 27 feet of water in some neighborhoods. A few years ago, the American Red Cross ranked the prospect of a hurricane's hitting New Orleans as the country's deadliest natural disaster threat, with up to 100,000 dead. Still, many Big Easy denizens insist they'll stay put for the next one. "There's a reason New Orleans has a drink called the hurricane," says Jeanne Hurlbert, an LSU sociology professor. "The culture here is 'we don't evacuate.'"
That culture has thrived, in part, because a deadly hurricane hasn't struck New Orleans since 1965, when Category 3 Betsy killed 75. But most residents faced only minor flooding. "Natives feel we withstood Betsy, so we could withstand anything," says Gayle Guerin, 49. In 1998, Hurricane Georges narrowly skirted the city, but just 1 in 3 residents evacuated. "They say it's coming, but it never does," says Avis Williams, 43, a father of six.
Higher ground. That philosophy was tested last September, as Hurricane Ivan approached. Gaynel Jones, 54, got nervous and fled with about 20 relatives--to the Days Inn downtown, 10 miles from her single-story home. She figured her family was safe from flooding on the sixth floor. Ivan wound up sparing the Crescent City, making landfall near Pensacola, Fla., where it killed 11. Should another hurricane threaten New Orleans, Jones says she'll most likely check into a hotel again. "There's nothing you can do, Jones says, "so you leave it in the hands of God."
A recent poll by the University of New Orleans suggests that 62 percent of greater New Orleans's 1.3 million residents would feel safe in their homes during a Category 3 storm. "We're a victim of our own good luck," says Susan Howell, the poll's director. The city's high poverty rate is another hurdle; almost 1 in 6 households has no car.
New Orleans is more vulnerable today than ever. Development and levee construction have put 500,000 acres of nearby coastal wetlands under water since 1965, eliminating buffers against the wind-fueled spikes in water levels known as storm surges. Even a Betsy-like Level 3 storm, which has winds of up to 130 mph, is now more likely to trigger storm surges in the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain that could spill over levee walls. The resulting flood could take months to drain. "You're talking about creating a refugee camp for a million homeless residents," says van Heerden.
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."
This story appears in the July 18, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.