By MATT CRENSON, AP National Writer
As Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Monday, experts said it could
turn one of America's most charming cities into a vast cesspool
tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by
floodwaters from the city's legendary cemeteries.
Experts have warned for years that the levees and pumps that usually
keep New Orleans dry have no chance against a direct hit by a Category
That's exactly what Katrina was as it churned toward the city. With
top winds of 160 mph and the power to lift sea level by as much as 28
feet above normal, the storm threatened an environmental disaster of
biblical proportions, one that could leave more than 1 million people
"All indications are that this is absolutely worst-case scenario,"
Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University
Hurricane Center, said Sunday afternoon.
The center's latest computer simulations indicate that by Tuesday,
vast swaths of New Orleans could be under water up to 30 feet deep. In
the French Quarter, the water could reach 20 feet, easily submerging
the district's iconic cast-iron balconies and bars.
Estimates predict that 60 percent to 80 percent of the city's houses
will be destroyed by wind. With the flood damage, most of the people
who live in and around New Orleans could be homeless.
"We're talking about in essence having -- in the continental United
States -- having a refugee camp of a million people," van Heerden
Aside from Hurricane Andrew, which struck Miami in 1992, forecasters
have no experience with Category 5 hurricanes hitting densely
"Hurricanes rarely sustain such extreme winds for much time. However
we see no obvious large-scale effects to cause a substantial weakening
the system and it is expected that the hurricane will be of Category 4
or 5 intensity when it reaches the coast," National Hurricane Center
meteorologist Richard Pasch said.
As they raced to put meteorological instruments in Katrina's path
Sunday, wind engineers had little idea what their equipment would
"We haven't seen something this big since we started the program,"
said Kurt Gurley, a University of Florida engineering professor. He
works for the Florida Coastal Monitoring Program, which is in its
seventh year of making detailed measurements of hurricane wind
conditions using a set of mobile weather stations.
Experts have warned about New Orleans' vulnerability for years,
chiefly because Louisiana has lost more than a million acres of
coastal wetlands in the past seven decades. The vast patchwork of
swamps and bayous south of the city serves as a buffer, partially
absorbing the surge of water that a hurricane pushes ashore.
Experts have also warned that the ring of high levees around New
Orleans, designed to protect the city from floodwaters coming down the
Mississippi, will only make things worse in a powerful hurricane.
Katrina is expected to push a 28-foot storm surge against
the levees. Even if they hold, water will pour over their tops and
begin filling the city as if it were a sinking canoe.
After the storm passes, the water will have nowhere to go.
In a few days, van Heerden predicts, emergency management officials
are going to be wondering how to handle a giant stagnant pond
contaminated with building debris, coffins, sewage and other hazardous
"We're talking about an incredible environmental disaster," van Heerden
He puts much of the blame for New Orleans' dire situation on the very
levee system that is designed to protect southern Louisiana from
Mississippi River floods.
Before the levees were built, the river would top its banks during
floods and wash through a maze of bayous and swamps, dropping
fine-grained silt that nourished plants and kept the land just above
The levees "have literally starved our wetlands to death" by directing
all of that precious silt out into the Gulf of Mexico, van Heerden
It has been 40 years since New Orleans faced a hurricane even
comparable to Katrina. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy, a Category 3 storm,
submerged some parts of the city to a depth of seven feet.
Since then, the Big Easy has had nothing but near misses. In 1998,
Hurricane Georges headed straight for New Orleans, then swerved at the
last minute to strike Mississippi and Alabama. Hurricane Lili blew
herself out at the mouth of the Mississippi in 2002. And last year's
Hurricane Ivan obligingly curved to the east as it came ashore, barely
grazing a grateful city.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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