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Vulnerable Cities

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New Orleans, LA
New Orleans Map

By: Julie Galle

It's been 25 years since a major hurricane made direct hit on New Orleans. The city has never felt the fury of a Category 4 or 5 storm. Many people who live in the city, known for it's party atmosphere and sultry summers, say they are due!

While damaging winds are a concern with any hurricane, New Orleanians know the biggest threat to their city is water.

"We actually live in a bowl. We live underwater," said Frank Hijuelos, director of New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness.

The city lies, on average, 6 feet below sea level. It's bordered by the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain on two sides. Those bodies of water ultimately feed into the Gulf of Mexico, which lies less than 100 miles from New Orleans. Besides being surrounded by water, the city is also marbled with canals and bayous that are essential to the city's daily functions.

Lake Pontchartrain forms New Orleans' northern boundary. The lake spans 630 square miles, but it's only 25 feet deep. Many experts say the lake is the city's greatest threat during a hurricane because of its relatively shallow depth.

Lake Pontchartrain

As recent as 1998, when Hurricane Georges skimmed the city, gales pushed the water of Lake Pontchartrain over the man-made seawall and onto roads and yards that face the Lake. But, the city has not seen the worst devastation possible.

A hurricane approaching the city from the east, virtually at the mouth of the Mississippi River, "would drive the lake water southward into the city. So under the right circumstances, the flooding may be more severe coming from the lake than that coming from the Gulf (of Mexico)," said Jay Grimes, Louisiana State Climatologist.

Many see the threat of a surge from the Gulf of Mexico as minimal because there is a complex series of levees between New Orleans and the Gulf. Many of the levees have been built and improved since 1966, when construction on the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project began.

Now, the project is focusing on closing gaps in the levee system in outlying areas, as well as within city limits.

The levees that protect New Orleans from the lapping waves of Lake Pontchartrain have holes in them formed by three large canals that are used to pump water out of the city and into the lake on a daily basis.

"The London Avenue Canal… leads directly to the Lakefront and ties into the lake. So, any storm surge that occurs in the lake occurs here in the London Avenue Canal... We have to provide protection all along this canal back to the Lakefront to protect the city from the storm surge," said Al Naomi, project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps is currently building flood-proof bridges over the London Avenue Canal and others. "The bridge will be part of the flood wall system, and it will keep the water from coming into the city." According to Naomi, the bridges are designed not to flood or be washed away by storm surges, providing safe evacuation routes for residents.

Levees also keep the Mississippi River from flowing into the city. The river serves as New Orleans' southern boundary, until it takes a deep dip and actually cuts through the city near the French Quarter. Anyone watching passing ships quickly realizes the vessels are moving along a river whose surface is several yards above their heads.

The levees that protect the city from flooding are also a flood threat themselves. "The biggest threat that the city has is that of a slow moving Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricane, which would create a surge of water that could be up to 30 feet high. Now if this (high) water comes into the city, it will top the levees. It will go over the top of the levees and actually fill up the city," said Hijuelos.

He added, "Every drop of water that comes into this city has to be pumped out. We're below sea level... but when you get a situation of a surge, the pumps would be under water. The pumps would be useless in that situation."

That happened when Betsy, a fast moving Category 3 storm, struck the city in 1965. "We experienced overtopping of the levees," Hijuelos said. Jim Singleton, the city councilman who oversees the water pumps, said it took nearly 8 hours to Hurricane Betsy get the systems back to normal.

Instead of cars and trucks, people used boats to navigate flooded streets following Betsy, as seen in the image to the right, provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

So to avoid the threat of an invading storm surge, residents are urged to evacuate. But often times, many do not. Hurricane Georges was a recent exception to the complacency felt by many people who live in a city that experiences Category 1 and 2 hurricanes almost annually.

"There wasn't a panic, but people were truly genuinely frightened. They heeded the evacuation warning. People got out. People I had talked to who lived in the city for 50 years, and had never evacuated in a hurricane… evacuated this time," said Tim Ryan, a lifelong resident of New Orleans.

Half of the 1 million people who live in the metro area evacuated as Georges drove toward the city, resulting in gridlock on the roads. Since Georges, city officials designed a plan that would provide a more orderly evacuation. It is to begin 72 hours before a storm hits, and end when the winds become too dangerous for motorists, according to Hijuelos.

The challenge will be convincing people to leave some three days before a hurricane makes landfall. "Seventy-two hours away, as you know, a hurricane can do almost anything. So, there's a high probability of error," Hijuelos said.

But city leaders are working to raise awareness about the dangers of hurricane winds, rains and surge. Two new videos are rolling throughout the city to change the minds of those who have grown complacent, and provide the latest education to those who are fearful of the big storm they say the city is in for.

A Rising Problem - No More

Stories of snakes, fish and alligators swimming through neighborhoods following hurricanes haunt New Orleans residents, but not as much as stories of caskets floating atop of floodwaters.

The stories date back to the early 18th Century, when the French first settled the city, according to Robert Florence, an author who has spent years studying New Orleans' cemeteries. Being below sea level, the city has a high water table, so families cannot bury their loved ones underground following funerals.

New Orleans residents first began above-ground burials in the late 18th Century, Florence said. "The first burial ground in the city was along the banks of the river on the top of the levee, which is the highest most well drained land," he said.

The first levees built in the city in 1718 were only three feet tall, according to the Orleans Levee District.

Florence added, "So, what you can only imagine happening is that they're burying on the levee, you've got flood levels coming over the banks of the river. You've got floating caskets that are pushed up above the ground. And you can only imagine. These levees sloped down into the city. If there was enough water, you could have caskets floating through the streets of the city."

After experiencing this enough times, residents decided to do something about it, according to Florence. The solution was to begin burying loved ones in tombs above ground.

Florence said, "The settlers here were familiar with the French, Spanish, etceteras - this Mediterranean custom of above ground burial, and they started to introduce those forms."

Today, the city owns seven cemeteries that house such tombs, but there are many others in which caskets have been buried underground.

Engineering now allows underground burial in the sub-sea level city, and floating caskets are a thing of the past. "That no longer really never happens in New Orleans because the land has been drained since the turn of the century. A system of water pumps... drains water out from under the city 24 hours a day."

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