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New Orleans: A Worst-Case Storm Scenario


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Hurricane Katrina is now passing over the city of New Orleans. The National Hurricane Center has downgraded it to a Category 3 storm, but it is still packing 125-mile-an-hour winds. Torrential rains have already swamped houses in low-lying areas and torn holes in the roof of the Louisiana Superdome, where about 9,000 people have taken refuge. New Orleans is particularly vulnerable to hurricanes because much of the city is below sea level and could flood if a nearby lake overflows.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Zwerdling is here to discuss this storm.

Good morning, Danny.


Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the latest situation, as you've been able to learn it?

ZWERDLING: I just got off the phone with one of the leading hurricane scientists, and he says things are looking better. They've been looking better the last few hours. He says there's no way to tell for sure now, and actually people won't know for many hours, possibly till this evening, but things are encouraging a little bit.

INSKEEP: Well, let's keep that in mind as we ask this next question. What is the worst-case scenario for New Orleans, which is something you've reported on?

ZWERDLING: The worst-case scenario happens like this: The hurricane would blow past the city. It would sort of sit on top of Lake Pontchartrain, which is on the northern edge of the city, and these ferocious winds would blow the water out of the lake over the levees, the walls that ring the city, and into the city. I have a clip here from an official at the Army Corps of Engineers, which builds and maintains these levees, Murray Starkel, and he says in the scenario that I've just talked about, this could be the worst flood that this country has ever seen.

Mr. MURRAY STARKEL (Army Corps of Engineers): If it overtops those hurricane protection levees, most of New Orleans will be under a good bit of water. Up to six, seven feet of water will be standing in places. Obviously, it's not going to make it a habitable place, and so we've got to get the water out. It could take as long as six months.

ZWERDLING: Six months, Steve. And we're not just talking about water in the French Quarter, in downtown, in the residential neighborhoods. We're talking about everything that came in from the countryside around New Orleans--alligators, snakes, toxic chemicals from petrochemical industries. Scientists say that New Orleans, in this worst-case scenario, would become the biggest toxic waste dump in the world.

INSKEEP: Why would it take six months?

ZWERDLING: Because the way the city is built--you mentioned at the beginning it's like a--it's below sea level and it's surrounded by these walls, these levees, that have been built for--actually since the French settlers got there 300 years ago, and once--now these levees were built to keep water out of the city, but if the levees are breached, if the water flows in over the levees, then there's no good way to get the water out. There's a huge pumping system, massive turbines that dwarf, you know, a human being. But they were built to get rid of rain, not to get rid of storm surges and a hurricane.

INSKEEP: Now you mentioned that the fear is that the winds would blow water back from Lake Pontchartrain, which is north of the city, back into the city. I'm just thinking about the geography here. This is a hurricane that's now seen passing a little bit east of New Orleans. The winds are going counterclockwise. If you look at that on a map, doesn't that mean that actually the winds at some point might be blowing, in fact, across Lake Pontchartrain right back into the city, in that worst-case scenario?

ZWERDLING: Exactly. And here, one of the interesting and very troubling thing about this hurricane is there's going to be a very dangerous period after the main part of the hurricane passes the city. People might go, `Whew! We missed the worst of it.' The winds will start to subside, and people will think the storm is basically over. But for New Orleans, that could be the beginning of the most dangerous period, because as I said at the beginning, if the storm goes past New Orleans in a certain way and sits over the lake on the north, then several hours after everybody goes `Whew!' then that's when the water could start pouring into the city. But we don't know, and won't know for hours.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, is there a bit of news that you're watching for that might tell you that the city is in trouble, or the city might be OK?

ZWERDLING: The scientists are watching for that. They're looking at their computers, looking at, you know, levels of water, looking at wind, looking at wind direction. I don't--I only talk to them, and they explain it to me in plain English.

INSKEEP: Well, we'll keep listening as you continue talking, Danny.

ZWERDLING: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That's NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Morning Edition
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Daniel Zwerdling is a correspondent in NPR's Investigations Unit.