Imagine the entire population of Munich, of Lyon or of Copenhagen evacuated because of a natural disaster. That’s the situation now in the New Orleans area.
As I write, it’s the dead of night over there, and it is not clear whether the levee breaks, particularly the one near 17th Street that had been keeping out Lake Ponchartrain, have been plugged.
Reports are conflicting — the local newspaper evacuated yesterday and has become essentially a blog; the blogs of local radio and tv stations give differing accounts — on whether water is still pouring into the city or not. WWL reports (scroll down to 8:04pm) that helicopters scheduled to drop tons of sand into the breach did not show up; other media say they did.
Until that gap — estimated at 150 meters in width — is plugged, New Orleans on the east bank of the Mississippi River will remain a tidal estuary of Lake Ponchartrain. Our Dutch readers will appreciate the scale and severity of the problem. Water will pour into the city until it reaches the level of the lake, which will mean what the world knows as New Orleans will be under three to four meters of water. (The West Bank will be dry, as will a few isolated areas.)
I’ve written about hurricanes and New Orleans before, ending, “Eventually, they say, a major hurricane will inevitably hit New Orleans; I just hope it isn?t this one [Ivan].” One year later, “inevitably” turned into today; Katrina was the Big One.
The stupefyingly strong winds that hit Gulfport and Biloxi (who have a tragedy of the first order to cope with) would have made things worse, possibly much worse, but the real worry for New Orleans has always been that one or more of the dikes protecting the city would give way. That’s happened. A good elevation map is here (pdf), but none of it is positive news. With reports coming in containing phrases like “fill the bowl” and “point of no return” it appears that about the only thing left to go wrong is for backflooding to sap one of the Mississippi River dikes, bringing in water from the other side.
Louisiana now faces its greatest crisis of governance since 1927. (That’s the year Mississippi River floodwaters stretched a hundred miles from east to west in some places, and floods inundated land from Illinois all the way to the sea.) America has a significant domestic crisis to cope with.
There is no power to run the pumping stations that would clear the water. Gas mains are breached; some natural gas fires are burning underneatah the water. Drinking water is already a problem in some places; uprooted trees took the water mains with them. Phone service is limited at best, and the backup power on the mobile phone antennas has long since run out. The body count will be high; at present, authorities are not even trying to recover bodies, as they are too busy trying to rescue the living.
New Orleans and the surrounding areas are essentially under martial law until further notice. Residents of Jefferson Parish (the area immediately east of the city center) have been told they will be admitted in a week to pick up belongings, and they should then depart again for at least a month. Schools in the city may re-open by December. They may not. The city is linked to the east by interstate (autobahn) bridges; nearly half of the spans were taken out by the storm, and complete repairs may take years.
As far as I know, there was no plan for what to do with a million people displaced for weeks or months. There will have to be one soon, because that’s what America now has.
From over here, probably the best way to help is to donate to the American Red Cross.
I can’t think of a European city that lives under a similar threat, which is a good thing, but the situation in New Orleans is of course a reminder that disaster preparedness is usually a low priority item. Until it becomes terribly, terribly important.
Update: Can’t find the reference for it now, but at least one of the articles I read this morning suggests that backflooding to the Mississippi dykes is unlikely. The land in the French Quarter is the highest in the city and may stay dry, or at least dry-ish, and since that’s what is right against the river dykes, these are likely to hold. Also, the summer has been drier than usual in the Mississippi basin, so the river is relatively low. Otherwise, the news is almost unremittingly bad. The holes may not be plugged for days, the hurricane has increased the height differential between the lake and the city, the lake is still overtopping levees to the east, and some of the devices that keep water from getting into the city will soon make it difficult to get water out.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast is faring worse, except for having fewer people involved and not having a lake to flood what’s left. The media warnings concentrated so strongly on New Orleans that a lower percentage of people evacuated, making the casualty rate higher. The phrase that keeps coming up is “worse than Camille,” which is local shorthand for “worse than the worst storm that’s ever happened here.”