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Hurricane Risk for New Orleans
September 14, 2004 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Hurricane Risk for New Orleans: "if that Category Five Hurricane comes to New Orleans, 50,000 people could lose their lives. Now that is significantly larger than any estimates that we would have of individuals who might lose their lives from a terrorist attack. When you start to do that kind of calculus - and it's horrendous that you have to do that kind of calculus - it appears to those of us in emergency management, that the risk is much more real and much more significant, when you talk about hurricanes. I don't know that anybody, though, psychologically, has come to grip with that: that the French Quarter of New Orleans could be gone." (Nb. this excerpt from a fascinating 2002 American RadioWorks documentary does not refer specifically to Ivan.)
posted by sudama (55 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

"Well, Hurricane Georges was one for which the track had the potential of flooding the city. So the people were given a mandatory order to evacuate the city," says Suhayda.

[...]At the last minute, Hurricane Georges faded to a weaker storm and it veered away, which was lucky. Because the evacuation was a fiasco.

"And what happened to the people that did evacuate is that they got into massive traffic jams and many of them spent the worst part of the hurricane either on the highway—stopped— or had pulled off to the side of the road," remembers Suhayda.

I was evacuating that night, but the way I remember it is that there *wasn't* a mandatory order because there was simply no way to get everybody out. We left in the middle of the night and it took hours just to get over the Causeway to Slidell. It was frightening.
posted by muckster at 8:12 AM on September 14, 2004

I've been hearing about this for years, and yet NO is so astoundingly corrupt and ineffectual, they are incapable of doing *anything* to try and mitigate this disaster, when, not if, it happens.
They have had 20-30 YEARS to build surge walls, prepare massive pumps, create concrete tide walls not just against the ocean, but against the Mississippi, instead of dirt levees, and any number of creative and innovative ways to save themselves. But they have done NOTHING.
This obstinance to protect themselves in a hazardous place really makes me question whether the federal government should bail them out when they are inundated. Had they even *asked* the federal government for help years ago, this could have been prevented or mitigated, but they have not.
posted by kablam at 8:23 AM on September 14, 2004

NOLA's living on borrowed time. And it ain't just storms.

The Mississippi river wants to take a shorter path to the sea along the Atchafalaya's path via the Old River. The Army Corps of Engineers built several massive dams (the ORCS, or Old River Conrol Structure) to prevent this.

"Despite several close calls, the ORCS still manages to keep the Mississippi River in check. How long this will last, however, is a matter of opinion. The Army corps claims to have the situation in control; the Mississippi will not divert to the Atchafalaya as long as they are there to prevent it. However ..."

Once the Mississippi diverts continued habitation in NOLA will, for all practical purposes, be impossible.
posted by Jos Bleau at 8:23 AM on September 14, 2004

I know New Orleans would be almost demolished by the Perfect Storm, but 50,000 dead? Not with evacuations. These days, that's an absurd figure used to sell books and Discovery Channel programming. Take off at least two zeros, and no thank you for the trivialization of terrorism attempt.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:27 AM on September 14, 2004

Well, Paris, I certainly feel better now. Damn these well thought out reports and first hand accounts -- with all their 'ideas' and 'well though out predicitions.'

If lower Manhattan was in this kind of danger and the shit hit the fan 50,000 dead would be a low number, and NO has fewer escape routes than Manhattan, right?
posted by n9 at 8:45 AM on September 14, 2004

n9: NYC isn't NO. Some factors: few people live in lower Manhattan; New Orleans isn't nearly as densely populated as Manhattan; Manhattan isn't below sea level; for better or worse, people of NYC aren't as poor as those of New Orleans. I don't think any appreciable number would die. They would over-panic, and even those who didn't have to, would leave.

As for my beloved Fire Island? I don't know if much would survive...
posted by ParisParamus at 8:58 AM on September 14, 2004

I knew all that tittie flashing was bad for warm bodies temperature. That needs further study, funbug hunter to the rescue !
posted by elpapacito at 9:11 AM on September 14, 2004

... but 50,000 dead? Not with evacuations. These days, that's an absurd figure used to sell books and Discovery Channel programming. Take off at least two zeros, and no thank you for the trivialization of terrorism attempt.

Estimating high casualties is how you get low casualties.

Fools estimate low casualties. Wise folk estimate high casualties, and let that drive their planning.

In any case, if you'd paid attention, you'd have noticed that evacuations failed once before, and that the lessons learned from that haven't been applied. Hence: No evacuations. Fallback to the should-be-infamous "skyscraper plan" (you know, where everybody crowds into the tall buildings in the Financial District).
posted by lodurr at 9:20 AM on September 14, 2004

Fools also cry wolf. Fools also realize that telecommunications and weather radar make life safe than it was decades ago.
posted by ParisParamus at 9:37 AM on September 14, 2004

PP, do you know anything about the layout and infrastructure of New Orleans, or are you just spouting off? There are a few very long, very narrow bridges that lead out of a city that's essentially a bowl below sea level. Did you even read the linked article?
posted by muckster at 9:42 AM on September 14, 2004

paris: fool hides under the radar for safety ? Fool see radar radome falling on fool head, making an astronaut.
posted by elpapacito at 9:55 AM on September 14, 2004

PP, you have never lived in that area.

I lived in Pensacola, several hours to the east of New Orleans...I also lived in Sarasota for a few years. That general area of the country ain't built for easy evacuatin, assuming people can AFFORD to rent hotel rooms and such or have the gas to go out of state. A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck down South.
posted by konolia at 9:58 AM on September 14, 2004

PP: I've noticed a few funny thing about "crying wolf". Like, say, when you plan for the worst, and it doesn't happen, people say that your planning was wasted -- but fail to recognize that your planning uncovered six or seven or twelve other problems that nobody knew about.

In any case, people will always say you've cried wolf if what you plan for doesn't come to pass. That is, of course, a pretty stupid way to think. So if a cat 4 or 5 storm heads for NOLA, and by some miracle the city was evacuated across those narrow bridges in a neat and orderly manner, and then the storm ... MISSES. Everyone would say that you cried wolf. And you'd never, ever know if 5, 50, 500, 5,000, or 50,000 people would have died. If it hit.

The storm that might have definition...wasn't. So, that means that you shouldn't have bothered to plan for it -- right?

How was it Eisenhower used to like to put it? "Plans are nothing. Planning is everything."
posted by lodurr at 10:01 AM on September 14, 2004

stop the foolishness of permitting yet more residential development. We are granting permits every week for new subdivisions right in the path of where this stuff is going to go. We're still covering those people with flood insurance

That's particularly scary. I wonder what the land developers are telling themselves as they build homes there.
posted by weston at 10:01 AM on September 14, 2004

Interesting, though the most likely target appears to be Mobile... an even larger city than New Orleans.
posted by insomnia_lj at 10:03 AM on September 14, 2004

My wife and eldest daughter are visiting my youngest daughter, who just started attending Tulane University (in New Orleans). Right now, they're in a cab on a packed freeway trying to get to the airport.

I hope that PP's estimates are closer to reality than the scientists' in the article.....
posted by Daddio at 10:05 AM on September 14, 2004

Some folks are using art to raise awareness of the problem. I would guess that at this point every bit helps.
posted by SteveInMaine at 10:11 AM on September 14, 2004

Also, Paris, note this portion of the article:

"Back in the 1920s, the river gushed over its banks and killed thousands of people and forced a million to abandon their homes."

Note that this particular catastrophe didn't chop two orders of magnitude off of the current estimate -- only one. And that was just from the Mississippi. If it could do that when swollen by a storm, what could the Gulf do when swollen by a category 5?
posted by weston at 10:12 AM on September 14, 2004

PP -- as you are no doubt aware, a massive hurricane cut Fire Island a new asshole in 1938.
posted by Faze at 10:16 AM on September 14, 2004

Hurricane Betsy, a category 3 storm (125 mph winds), hit New Orleans in 1965 pretty much full-on. 75 deaths were attributed to Betsy. I imagine (but don't know) that the levee system is improved since then, although population and development growth probably cancel that out.
posted by luser at 10:37 AM on September 14, 2004

luser --- the linked articles pretty much say that the water control systems have not appreciably improved since then.
posted by n9 at 10:44 AM on September 14, 2004

PP: ever watch the Decalogue? The episode for 'Thou shall have no gods before me' where the scientist does the math and decides that the ice is think enough for his son to skate on, only to find that for whatever reason it wasn't after his son falls through and dies?

I put a lot of faith in science, but if my daughter were in NO right now I don't think that I'd be sitting back enjoying a Cohiba. What is the positive ethical stance of poo-pooing estimates of potential mass death?
posted by n9 at 10:48 AM on September 14, 2004

Faze: cool photo--makes the New York Atlantic look, almost, tropical!
posted by ParisParamus at 10:48 AM on September 14, 2004

Poo Poo'ing? I'm not suggesting that you take the same precautions you're suggesting. I just don't think it's constructive to offer a grotesquely large overestimate of likely fatalities.

Do you really think you have to scare people with ridulous figures to make them leave? That's rather cynical.

And really, if people are that dumb that they need to think 50,000 people will die, they deserve to.
posted by ParisParamus at 10:52 AM on September 14, 2004

OK, I was about to suggest we not pile on to PP, but...

PP: So, why don't you run down your disaster-preparedness and city-planning experience for us, eh? Any hydrology or civil engineering training would be nice to know about, also.

Of course, most of us don't have that experience, either. But those folks in the article? They do.
posted by lodurr at 10:56 AM on September 14, 2004

Oops: I'm not suggesting that you don't take
posted by ParisParamus at 10:56 AM on September 14, 2004

Look. I only take offense at the stupid 50,000 figure. This is not Bangledesh! Don't you realize how everyone in the process (of planning for a disaster) has an interest in inflating figures, to inflate their importance, get as much funding as possible, etc?
posted by ParisParamus at 10:58 AM on September 14, 2004

I still don't see a single reason to disbelieve the 50k number. Sorry. The pop density of that area seems sufficient to overrule an officious poster saying that it is too high, just because. But then again PP has reminded us all, yet again, how easy it is for him to spend hypothetical lives:

PP: And really, if people are that dumb that they need to think 50,000 people will die, they deserve to.
posted by n9 at 11:04 AM on September 14, 2004

luser -- I think NOLA's population has dropped since 1965, for what it's worth.

My people down there are evacuating, and they'd stayed through the threat in 1998 (we were younger then, too). Having a certain familiarity with New Orleans and also recently having had some serious flooding here (from a mere tropical storm), I'd say that the threat isn't overstated. Keep in mind that the actual storm is only part of the problem -- how long would the city be without power or potable water after a big hit?
posted by john m at 11:12 AM on September 14, 2004

I had a friend who had to go down to Florida to save some horses before the second hurricane hit. A lot of people did not evacuate simply because they could not. There was not enough gas, and the roads were packed. The ATMs were all out of money.

It's not as simple as a bad traffic jam as everyone tries to get out. The logistics involved do not make the 50,000 figure seem inflated. If NO had a four day warning (which would be fair, correct?) That's four days to get everyone in a city out. Even at maximum efficiency I don't believe it would be possible.

And what about the poverty in NO, those who have no way to get out, or if they can get out not enough money to go anywhere. So they end up staying.

At least Venice is doing something about their flooding problems, even in the world of Italian politics they're trying at least. This is pitiful for NO, to the point where I believe federal intervention may be a necessity.
posted by geoff. at 11:13 AM on September 14, 2004

Animated loop of Ivan forecast graphics. (May be slow for dialuppers)
posted by grateful at 11:17 AM on September 14, 2004

Dude, that 50,000?

Pretty damn likely. Get enough people waitin' out the storm in their homes, add in the non-stop termite infestation, and you've got an entire city made out of nothing but matchsticks. It won't take much more than a strong wind to knock them over.

When Georges came around, I ended up in a Tulane dormitory hallway -- the only place the school had prepared for a hurricane. And even that was half-assed, so god only knows what would've happened. At least we got food, unlike everyone who went to the Superdome to wait out the storm, where the city didn't provide anything but a place to wait it out, and neglected to tell everyone that.
posted by Katemonkey at 11:20 AM on September 14, 2004

The last hurricane to hit NO was Betsy. If you've ever driven in NO you know that to leave the place you have to get on bridges. When you leave NO to go to west you take I-10 West to I-55 North and you are on bridges for 40 miles. To leave north you take the causeway which is over 25 miles long and crosses Lake Ponchatrain. To leave East there are bridges involved just not as long. With a storm approaching, the causeway would crawl. During bad weather, cars are required to convoy behind law enforcement and be escorted across. The loss of life that would occur if a hurricane hit with cars on the Causeway could be ugly.
posted by whatever at 12:02 PM on September 14, 2004

To all those who have the audacity to talk trash about New Orleans, go to hell. I have lived in NO all my life. People have lived in this city for hundreds of years. "We" are not all corrupt and stupid and ineffectual. New Orleanians are not the ones in charge of errecting levees or roads or what not. We are people, working our asses off just to live, so to make stupid comments (Kablam) about who we are and that perhaps we deserve what we get and screw us if we get hit, go fuck yourself.
posted by emphaticMisanthrop at 12:15 PM on September 14, 2004

Some links of interest for people on Ivan path

AOML FAQ on hurricanes , probably the most detailed FAQ ever on hurricanes, tons of technical info + practical notions.
and links.
National Hurricane Center Advisories THE official government source for all hurricane information updates. Many updates a day, includes maps you should give a look too.

USAF R 53rd Hurricane Hunters page. Batshit insane people flying planes into the eyes of Hurricanes to get valuable scientific data and to strike Top Gun poses with girls. No hurricane has been injuried during their missions.
posted by elpapacito at 12:42 PM on September 14, 2004

No one deserves to get hit. But, uh, don't you think that even ordinary people who live in the targeted areas might want to start taking a look at their environment and ask their civic leaders what has been done to prevent disaster? If I lived on a coastline or in a flood plain, I'd sure as hell want to know what sort of protection the state had for me.

Maybe because I live in FL, I take the government's degree of hurricane preparedness for granted. I am not saying the system is foolproof, but the massive evac for Frances was pretty impressive and smooth running. (And as geoff. said, everyone still could not leave for whatever reason. But we did get a lot of people out.) For every hurricane that's even come near FL, I've always known what my state, outlying counties, and nearby cities had planned.

This hurricane season has been a real wakeup call to a lot of communities that have grown complacent over the years. Central Florida - despite being part of a freaking hurricane state - had been complacent previous to Charlie; I'm surprised that entire states, especially those with a history of flooding, still seem to be complacent for Ivan.
posted by Sangre Azul at 2:01 PM on September 14, 2004

I know New Orleans would be almost demolished by the Perfect Storm, but 50,000 dead? Not with evacuations. These days, that's an absurd figure used to sell books and Discovery Channel programming. Take off at least two zeros, and no thank you for the trivialization of terrorism attempt.

I can just see the headline now: Highly trained civil engineers, hydrologists shown error of their ways by lonely Park Slope crank who never leaves apartment
posted by bshort at 2:30 PM on September 14, 2004

I leave my apartment every day! Sometimes even twice a day!
posted by ParisParamus at 3:02 PM on September 14, 2004

for better or worse, people of NYC aren't as poor as those of New Orleans.

pp, do you think people can wave money at a hurricane? ... i just got done reading a news story that said 300,000 people might choose, or be unable to leave new orleans ... and if ivan makes a direct hit ...

50,000 dead could happen ... the city itself could be destroyed

if i was in n o right now ... well, i'd have left already, for sure
posted by pyramid termite at 3:39 PM on September 14, 2004

Mother Nature's not our enemy, the Muslim Terrorists are
posted by WLW at 4:38 PM on September 14, 2004

I think FreedomP wants to just take all that money and pile it into a big levee.
posted by bshort at 6:13 PM on September 14, 2004

Does anyone have any idea how the authorities estimate a random number like 50,000 dead? How about you people who argue it's realistic? Is is just that it just sounds about right, based on your extensive knowledge of... what?
posted by smackfu at 7:48 PM on September 14, 2004

This is going to make for some really cool scuba diving.

(And...from my brother, who works with the Louisiana FEMA division, there is a warehouse in Baton Rouge with 50,000 body bags...they've been waiting there for almost fifteen years now.)
posted by ColdChef at 8:04 PM on September 14, 2004

Interesting, though the most likely target appears to be Mobile... an even larger city than New Orleans.

insomnia_lj : Mobile is nowhere near as big as New Orleans...not even close.
posted by republican at 8:27 PM on September 14, 2004

"A catastrophic hurricane represents 10 or 15 atomic bombs in terms of the energy it releases"

From this pretty grim and detailed explanation of the dangers involved for New Orleans and possible scenarios of "the big one".

To be honest, I didn't even really want to look at this thread. I lived in New Orleans for 15 years, and it is the city that I consider my home town (since before that I never lived anywhere longer than four years). All my closest friends are in N.O., and my family is a couple of hundred miles north. It's hard to imagine New Orleans' peculiar geography unless you've spent some time there; there's a reason it's called the "Isle of Orleans".
posted by taz at 2:30 AM on September 15, 2004

PP : Fools also cry wolf.

Kinda like those Wolves of Mass Destruction, even?

Man, you make it too easy.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:46 AM on September 15, 2004

Does anyone have any idea how the authorities estimate a random number like 50,000 dead? How about you people who argue it's realistic? Is is just that it just sounds about right, based on your extensive knowledge of... what?

Hmm... where to start....

First: We didn't estimate it. People whose job it is to estimate that kind of thing, made that estimate.

But you're right, we have an obligation to assess the veracity of every piece of data with which we're presented. I have known a few Emergency Preparedness folks over the years, and have read a few disaster plans, but more important, I can apply my own real world knowledge of highways, bridges, and the city of New Orleans. So let's take it apart, shall we?

The city of New Orleans is entirely below the level of the Mississippi River and of Lake Ponchetrain, directly adjacent -- much of it about 30 feet below. (It's pretty striking if you come up on the River from the French Quarter and see the hull of some passing freighter looming overhead.)

City population is given by Wikipedia as 484,674; for the sake of this argument, let's assume that all those people live in the city, proper. As noted earlier in this thread, ingress and egress to the city is primarily by a few roads which must cross long stretches of water (hence, much firmer limits on how many cars can exit). In bad weather (again, as previously established), several of those routes become dangerous and possibly impassible. This makes evacuation difficult.

I won't speculate on a per-hour evacuation rate, but I suppose you could do some math on the matter. Assuming a certain number of egress points and certain rates of speed (bear in mind that most won't be moving at full speed and that Emergency Services will keep at least one inbound lane free at all times), you could estimate the rate at which cars can leave the city. Make an assumption about how many bodies in each car. (Detailed demographic data would help.) Add variables to cover traffic congestion. Consider how much gasoline there is. Consider the weather. You begin to have established the math for predicting evacuation rate. Add in vars to cover the rate at which evac ramps up (when does it start, how many people take it seriously, etc.).

But set against that the fact that people are naturally reluctant to evacuate (yeah, I know, "they deserve it", let's move along) for fear of being accused of "crying wolf", and you're not likely to have a high rate of evacuation. But let's say you do get a good evacuation rate: You could easily have 50,000 people on bridges and causeways during the storm, alone. After Betsy, that will be in a lot of minds.

The reference to the "termite problem" was only partly frivilous; many homes in NO are unsound against extreme weather or flooding. Consider that the water table is very high already, so foundations are questionable to begin with. Add to that the fact that there aren't really very many tall buildings in New Orleans, and 20-30 feet of water gets to be a lot. You've got a lot of people crowding up into the top two or three floors of buildings in the Quarter. If they manage to get to one of the designated safe zones, like the Superdome, or some of the skyscrapers downtown, you have to wonder about the capacity of those places.

So you've got a pretty high risk of an awful lot of people just drowning in the flood.

So let's fast forward to after the flood. Note that NO has a very high water table. Note also that the Mississippi is not one of the world's cleanest rivers. You'll have water filled with raw sewage all over the place, and since NO is all below water level, it's probably not going to be flowing and flushing. So you'll have lots and lots of people getting sick with dysentary and even less pretty things. Medical supplies will be thin, due to logistical problems of getting them in (helicopter? boat?), and medical personnel will be stretched to their limits.

Note that this is all plausible armchair stuff, nothing challenging here. No, this isn't Bangladesh; but prosperity is not proof of blessedness. Prosperity doesn't mean we can't suffer the consequences of overweening arrogance.

I like NO, a lot. I've left a few happenings, there, to crib from LV's tourist slogan. And it's a wonderful, distinctive town. But if we do an objective analysis, there are huge risks institutionalized in the city of New Orleans. And I doubt most NO'lineans would disagree with that (they're not stupid). Are they 50K lives worth of risk? A bunch of experienced city planners and disaster preparedness folks seem to think so. My quick check based on the paltry facts that I know make them sound credible.

So, how about you? Do you have a solid argument *against* the 50K number?
posted by lodurr at 3:26 AM on September 15, 2004

Also, it occurs to me that some people in this thread are thinking the wrong way about these numbers.

As with all "casualty estimates", these are estimates of what will happen if things are done wrong. The sense of urgency and gloom in the linked article derives from the fact that it looks to these folks like an awful lot of things will go wrong.

Anyone who thinks that these guys will feel somehow vindicated by a 30K death toll is thinking out his/her ass. Disaster preparedness planners don't do this stuff because they like to see people dead. They do it because they don't. They don't even do it to improve their status or get more money for their agency -- that's just cynical bullshit, frankly. They do it because they want to fight chaos and death.
posted by lodurr at 3:31 AM on September 15, 2004

I look to Grenada, which is an island with an underdeveloped infrastructure that took a direct hit from a Category 5 last week. That's gotta be a worst case scenario. 90,000 population and 19 deaths.
posted by smackfu at 6:41 AM on September 15, 2004

That's gotta be a worst case scenario.

Jeebus Farking Keeerist. Are you even reading any of this?

Yes, Grenada is an island. By definition, that means it's ABOVE SEA LEVEL. In fact, it's quite hilly. Which means, by definition, that it's WAY ABOVE SEA LEVEL.

New Orleans, by contrast, is an average of 5 FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL. Much of it is 30 FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL. With very poor exits.

Alright, I'm done. You'll believe/hear/read whatever you want.
posted by lodurr at 7:01 AM on September 15, 2004

What do the 'Vegas odds-makers say? I bet a maximum of 34 dead, with more injured, and 2.73 billion in damages.
posted by ParisParamus at 7:22 AM on September 15, 2004

Actually, make that $3.71 billion.
posted by ParisParamus at 7:24 AM on September 15, 2004

lodurr, what I was going after was that Grenada was devastated and most structures were destroyed and still not many people died. People are surprisingly resilient. It is true that was just from the massive hurricane winds and rain and not from the floods. You clearly think a flood will kill a ton of people but I just don't agree. We can leave it at that.
posted by smackfu at 8:55 AM on September 15, 2004

I wonder when we'll finally wake up to the fact that something isn't right with all these storms and declare a Global War on Weather.
posted by muckster at 9:53 AM on September 15, 2004

Well, fortunately, we'll probably never know whether flooding the whole city with everyone in it would result in 50,000 deaths, because apparently city and state officials took the risk seriously and started evacuation early. There are only 100,000 people left in the city, and they're at least talking a good game about preparedness with regard to them.

As for a "war on weather"... well, I can imagine ways we might win that. But they'd be pretty ugly.
posted by lodurr at 10:58 AM on September 15, 2004

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