They don't bury the dead
in New Orleans. The highest
point in the city is only 6 ft. above sea level, which makes
for watery graves. Fearful that rotting corpses caused
epidemics, the city limited ground burials in 1830. Mausoleums
built on soggy cemetery grounds became the final resting place
for generations. Beyond providing a macabre tourist
attraction, these "cities of the dead" serve as a reminder of
the Big Easy's vulnerability to flooding. The reason water
rushes into graves is because New Orleans sits atop a delta
made of unconsolidated material that has washed down the
Think of the city as a chin jutting out,
waiting for a one-two punch from Mother Nature. The first blow
comes from the sky. Hurricanes plying the Gulf of Mexico push
massive domes of water (storm surges) ahead of their swirling
winds. After the surges hit, the second blow strikes from
below. The same swampy delta ground that necessitates
above-ground burials leaves water from the storm surge with no
place to go but up.
The fact that New Orleans has not already sunk is a matter
of luck. If slightly different paths had been followed by
Hurricanes Camille, which struck in August 1969, Andrew in
August 1992 or George in September 1998, today we might need
scuba gear to tour the French Quarter.
"In New Orleans, you never get above sea level, so you're
always going to be isolated during a strong hurricane," says
Kay Wilkins of the southeast Louisiana chapter of the American
During a strong hurricane, the city could be inundated with
water blocking all streets in and out for days, leaving people
stranded without electricity and access to clean drinking
water. Many also could die because the city has few buildings
that could withstand the sustained 96- to 100-mph winds and 6-
to 8-ft. storm surges of a Category 2 hurricane. Moving to
higher elevations would be just as dangerous as staying on low
ground. Had Camille, a Category 5 storm, made landfall at New
Orleans, instead of losing her punch before arriving, her
winds would have blown twice as hard and her storm surge would
have been three times as high.
Yet knowing all this, area residents have made their
potential problem worse. "Over the past 30 years, the coastal
region impacted by Camille has changed dramatically. Coastal
erosion combined with soaring commercial and residential
development in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have all
combined to significantly increase the vulnerability of the
area," says Sandy Ward Eslinger, of the National Oceanographic
and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center in
Emergency planners believe that it is a foregone conclusion
that the Big Easy someday will be hit by a scouring storm
surge. And, given the tremendous amount of coastal-area
development, this watery "big one" will produce a staggering
amount of damage. Yet, this doesn't necessarily mean that
there will be a massive loss of lives.
The key is a new emergency warning system developed by
Gregory Stone, a professor at Louisiana State University (LSU).
It is called WAVCIS, which stands for wave-current surge
information system. Within 30 minutes to an hour after raw
data is collected from monitoring stations in the Gulf, an
assessment of storm-surge damage would be available to
emergency planners. Disaster relief agencies then would be
able to mobilize resources--rescue personnel, the Red Cross,
and so forth.
The $4.5 million WAVCIS project, which is now coming on
line, will fill a major void in the Louisiana storm warning
system, which was practically nonexistent compared to those of
other Gulf Coast states. A system of 20 "weather buoys" along
the U.S. coastline serves as a warning system for the Gulf of
Mexico. However, the buoys are not distributed evenly and
Louisiana falls into one of the gaps. From the mouth of the
Mississippi River to the Louisiana-Texas border, there are no
buoys. Only one buoy serves Louisiana, and it is 62 miles east
of the Mississippi River and more than 300 miles to the south.
So it's a bit like predicting the weather in Boston when your
thermometer is in Philadelphia. The other buoys are near the
coastlines of Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and
several hundred miles out into the Gulf.
One reason that WAVCIS will be more accurate is that its
sensors are attached to offshore oil platforms. The older,
floating buoys ride up and down with the waves and often can't
give accurate pictures of wave heights and storm surges.
Stable platforms mean that the sensors can be placed above and
below the water, allowing more precise measurements. Data from
each of the 13 stations, five of which are now on line, is
transmitted to LSU, where it'll be interpreted and sent to
emergency planners centers, via the Internet.
"With this new
we get to see real information on storm surge and we can feed
that into our models and come up with real data," says Mike
Brown, assistant director of the New Orleans emergency
Because large areas
would have to be evacuated, false alarms could be harmful to
the economy. Stone sees it as a reasonable tradeoff.
"It's better to
have that frustration than the loss of life. The potential
loss of life in Louisiana could be catastrophic because there
is just nowhere to go."