"The Big One"


In 2002, Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid, staff reporters of the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote an article called, “The Big One.” They accurately predicted what would happen if New Orleans were hit by a large storm surge:

A stronger storm on a slightly different course — such as the path Georges was on just 16 hours before landfall — could have realized emergency officials’ worst-case scenario: hundreds of billions of gallons of lake water pouring over the levees into an area averaging 5 feet below sea level with no natural means of drainage.

That would turn the city and the east bank of Jefferson Parish into a lake as much as 30 feet deep, fouled with chemicals and waste from ruined septic systems, businesses and homes. Such a flood could trap hundreds of thousands of people in buildings and in vehicles. At the same time, high winds and tornadoes would tear at everything left standing. Between 25,000 and 100,000 people would die, said John Clizbe, national vice president for disaster services with the American Red Cross.

“A catastrophic hurricane represents 10 or 15 atomic bombs in terms of the energy it releases,” said Joseph Suhayda, a Louisiana State University engineer who is studying ways to limit hurricane damage in the New Orleans area. “Think about it. New York lost two big buildings. Multiply that by 10 or 20 or 30 in the area impacted and the people lost, and we know what could happen.”

Hundreds of thousands would be left homeless, and it would take months to dry out the area and begin to make it livable. But there wouldn’t be much for residents to come home to. The local economy would be in ruins.

The scene has been played out for years in computer models and emergency-operations simulations. Officials at the local, state and national level are convinced the risk is genuine and are devising plans for alleviating the aftermath of a disaster that could leave the city uninhabitable for six months or more. The Army Corps of Engineers has begun a study to see whether the levees should be raised to counter the threat. But officials say that right now, nothing can stop “the big one.”

This whole scenario was predicted by these astute and prescient writers over three years ago. Why is that they weren’t taken seriously?

More excerpts:

Louisiana emergency management officials say they lobbied the agency for years to study how to respond to New Orleans’ vulnerability, finally getting attention last year.

With computer modeling of hurricanes and storm surges, disaster experts have developed a detailed picture of how a storm could push Lake Pontchartrain over the levees and into the city.

“The worst case is a hurricane moving in from due south of the city,” said Suhayda, who has developed a computer simulation of the flooding from such a storm. On that track, winds on the outer edges of a huge storm system would be pushing water in Breton Sound and west of the Chandeleur Islands into the St. Bernard marshes and then Lake Pontchartrain for two days before landfall.

“Water is literally pumped into Lake Pontchartrain,” Suhayda said. “It will try to flow through any gaps, and that means the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (which is connected to Breton Sound by the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet) and the Chef Menteur and the Rigolets passes.

“So now the lake is 5 to 8 feet higher than normal, and we’re talking about a lake that’s only 15 or 20 feet deep, so you’re adding a third to a half as much water to the lake,” Suhayda said. As the eye of the hurricane moves north, next to New Orleans but just to the east, the winds over the lake switch around to come from the north.

“As the eye impacts the Mississippi coastline, the winds are now blowing south across the lake, maybe at 50, 80, 100 mph, and all that water starts to move south,” he said. “It’s moving like a big army advancing toward the lake’s hurricane-protection system. And then the winds themselves are generating waves, 5 to 10 feet high, on top of all that water. They’ll be breaking and crashing along the sea wall.”

Soon waves will start breaking over the levee.

“All of a sudden you’ll start seeing flowing water. It’ll look like a weir, water just pouring over the top,” Suhayda said. The water will flood the lakefront, filling up low-lying areas first, and continue its march south toward the river. There would be no stopping or slowing it; pumping systems would be overwhelmed and submerged in a matter of hours.

“Another scenario is that some part of the levee would fail,” Suhayda said. “It’s not something that’s expected. But erosion occurs, and as levees broke, the break will get wider and wider. The water will flow through the city and stop only when it reaches the next higher thing. The most continuous barrier is the south levee, along the river. That’s 25 feet high, so you’ll see the water pile up on the river levee.”

As the floodwaters invade and submerge neighborhoods, the wind will be blowing at speeds of at least 155 mph, accompanied by shorter gusts of as much as 200 mph, meteorologists say, enough to overturn cars, uproot trees and toss people around like dollhouse toys.

The wind will blow out windows and explode many homes, even those built to the existing 110-mph building-code standards. People seeking refuge from the floodwaters in high-rise buildings won’t be very safe, recent research indicates, because wind speed in a hurricane gets greater with height. If the winds are 155 mph at ground level, scientists say, they may be 50 mph stronger 100 feet above street level.

Buildings also will have to withstand pummeling by debris picked up by water surging from the lakefront toward downtown, with larger pieces acting like battering rams.

Ninety percent of the structures in the city are likely to be destroyed by the combination of water and wind accompanying a Category 5 storm, said Robert Eichorn, former director of the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness. The LSU Hurricane Center surveyed numerous large public buildings in Jefferson Parish in hopes of identifying those that might withstand such catastrophic winds. They found none.

Amid this maelstrom, the estimated 200,000 or more people left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive. Some will be housed at the Superdome, the designated shelter in New Orleans for people too sick or infirm to leave the city. Others will end up in last-minute emergency refuges that will offer minimal safety. But many will simply be on their own, in homes or looking for high ground.

It seems to me that “The Big Easy” didn’t think this was a plausible scenario or they would have prepared for it. If the potential of this disaster has been predicted for years why wasn’t there adequate preparation for the possibility of its occurrence?

I am sure this question will be asked of the Louisiana and New Orleans governments soon.