August 28, 2005

The Storm From Hell

Category Five Hurricane Katrina will most likely slam into New Orleans before I wake up Monday morning.

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This three year-old article highlighted by Glenn Reynolds does not make for encouraging reading.

And there's another reason why scientists worry more about hurricanes every single year. There's always been a huge natural buffer that helps protect New Orleans from storms. There are miles of wetlands between here and the Gulf of Mexico: they slow hurricanes down as they blow in from the sea. But that buffer is disappearing. Every year, a chunk of wetlands the size of Manhattan crumbles and turns into open water.

Joe Suhayda explains, “So the hurricane can move closer to the city before it starts to decrease. So in effect, the city is moving closer to the Gulf as each year goes by.”

And he says, it's partly because of those levees along the Mississippi River. When they stopped the river from flooding, they also prevented the wetlands from getting the regular doses of floodwater and mud that they need to survive. Studies show that if the wetlands keep vanishing over the next few decades, then you won't need a giant storm to devastate New Orleans — a much weaker, more common kind of hurricane could destroy the city too.
Here’s another worrisome article that is also almost three years old - therefore it is not part of any Katrina-related hype.
Why is New Orleans so vulnerable? Try these three main reasons:
  • Sandwiched between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, most of the city lies below sea level. A flood that gushes over shielding levees (earthen walls built in the late 1800s to protect against river overflow) would submerge New Orleans underwater.
  • Marshes, fresh and saltwater swamps of mud and diverse plant life, divide New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico. They once acted as barriers from storm surges—high water accompanying storms. Now marshes are quickly eroding, or wearing away. This is partly because levees block and reroute the Mississippi's periodic flooding cycles, which spread mud and sediment (rock particles) that shore up marshes. In some places, the gulf has receded 32 to 48 kilometers (20 to 30 miles) closer to New Orleans.
  • The number and intensity of Atlantic Ocean hurricanes tend to increase in cycles every few decades, experts say. “We've just entered a more active phase,” says Willoughby (see “How Hurricanes Form,” p. 24).
I heard broadcasters on the radio this evening say that tens of thousands could die, that New Orleans skyscrapers could topple, that much of the city could be completely destroyed and lost forever. God I hope they’re wrong.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 28, 2005 11:21 PM

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