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New Orleans: Gone With The Water

September 5, 2005 @ 9:22am

I haven't seen this one mentioned anywhere in the blogosphere. A National Geographic article one year ago opened with a detailed account of a hurricane hitting New Orleans and wiping it out:

But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however-the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level-more than eight feet below in places-so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

At the time, they followed up this doomsday preview with a poll asking readers "Should the federal government spend billions of dollars to stem the tide of wetland loss in Louisiana?" It had several responses before lapsing into one of those unmoderated free-for-all forums. But the forum has had a resurgence as post-Katrina readers have rediscovered it.

The forum comments included a link to a Civil Engineering Magazine article from June of 2003 which asks "If a storm of category 4 or 5 were to hit New Orleans before the city was adequately prepared, what toll would it exact?" Now we know.

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