Hurricane Ivan is drawing a bead on the area where I grew up – Mobile, Alabama from age four to eight and Baton Rouge, Louisiana from eight until I went off to university. Mom’s headed north to cousins’ in Vicksburg, Mississippi. True to form, Dad, stepmom and co. are staying put.
Ninety miles inland, where Baton Rouge stands, is probably far enough that the storm will have weakened considerably, and I don’t expect too much damage.
I don’t really know anyone anymore in Mobile, where the latest map shows the eye of the storm making landfall. Still, I remember visiting a couple of years after Frederic blasted the area in 1979. Half the tree cover was gone. The storm took out this highway bridge; the replacement, which may well go the way of its predecessor, is already closed with the storm 200 miles off the coast; the island it leads to is reporting flooding on virtually all streets 18 hours ahead of landfall. Reporting is limited, of course, there’s a mandatory evacuation order. (Or was. It’s too late to do anything but stay put now.)
Five years after Camille hit Biloxi, Mississippi, the stone shells of the big houses still stood on the coastal highway, bereft of all interiors. What the wind didn’t blow away, the sea took. I didn’t know Biloxi before Camille, by some measures the second most powerful Atlantic storm ever to hit the US. But after Camille grizzled old-timers who had ridden out many storms said “never again.” They head inland now. That stretch of coast, too, has a mandatory evacuation order for anyone within about 15km of the water.
New Orleans is also worried. Google up news of the storm preparations, and you’ll find near-apocalyptic tones. The city is below sea level, and emergency planners worry that the whole city could end up under 12 to 18 feet (four to six meters) of water, and stay that way for up to two weeks. When I worked at a refinery, the hurricane preparedness course told us that two places on the face of the earth have all of the characteristics for truly catastrophic cyclone effects: Bangladesh and New Orleans. (The Red Cross won’t be opening hurricane shelters in N.O. out of concerns for the safety of its personnel.) If you’re a responsible official in the city of New Orleans, population 1.2 million, the real kicker is that all the roads out of town and away from the sea are essentially (or actually) on bridges. In the last 18 to 24 hourse before a hurricane arrives, these are too dangerous to use as evacuation routes. The city’s evacuation is now over for all practical purposes. The plan for people still there is twofold: go vertical, and hope the storm passes as far east as possible.
Anyway, apart from Britain and, very rarely France, Europe doesn’t have much experience with hurricane-type storms, so I thought I’d share the personal perspective. Ivan’s a big one, with sustained hurricane-force winds (75 mph, 120kph) reaching at least a hundred miles from either side of the eye. That’s a swathe from Canterbury to Oxford, or nearly twice the width of Italy. A less powerful storm that his south Louisiana in 1957 brought seawater 25 miles inland in some places. Eventually, they say, a major hurricane will inevitably hit New Orleans; I just hope it isn’t this one.