DANIEL ZWERDLING: When travelers rate their favorite cities around the world, they put New Orleans near the top of the list — Cajun culture, The Mississippi, The French Quarter. But a scientist named Joe Suhayda sees a more troubling vision of this city.

JOE SUHAYDA: What we have here is a surveying rod and it has the lengths marked along the length of the rod. So what I'm going to do is go ahead and extend this.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Can I help you here?

JOE SUHAYDA: Yes. Go ahead and hold that.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Suhayda studies hurricanes. And he's brought me to the French Quarter to show what could happen if the most powerful kind of hurricane hits New Orleans.

JOE SUHAYDA: So this indicates the depth of water that would occur above this ground in a category five hurricane.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: It's hard to comprehend, really.

JOE SUHAYDA: It is really, to think that that much water would occur during this catastrophic storm.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: So basically the part of New Orleans that most people in the United States and around the world think of as New Orleans would disappear under water.

JOE SUHAYDA: That's right. During the worst of the storm, most of this area would be covered by 15 to 20 feet of water.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Do you expect this kind of hurricane and this kind of flooding to hit New Orleans in our lifetime?

JOE SUHUYDA: Well, there — I would say the probability is yes. In terms of past experience, we've had three storms that were near misses that could've done at least something close to this.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: So emergency management officials are trying to get ready — they're playing a hurricane version of war games.

WALTER MAESTRI: A couple of days ago we actually had an exercise where we brought a fictitious Category Five hurricane —


WALTER MAESTRI: — the absolute worst, into the metropolitan area

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Walter Maestri is basically the czar of public emergencies in Jefferson Parish. It's the biggest suburb in the region.

WALTER MAESTRI: Well, when the exercise was completed it was evident that we were going to lose a lot of people. We changed the name of the storm from Delaney to K-Y-A-G-B — kiss your ass goodbye — because anybody who was here as that Category Five storm came across was gone.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: The American Red Cross lists the worst natural disasters that might strike America. They worry about earthquakes in California, and tropical storms in Florida. But they say the biggest catastrophe could be a hurricane hitting New Orleans. People have known for centuries that they picked a risky spot to build this city. In fact, some of the first French settlers wanted to abandon it. The biggest river on the continent snakes around it. Most of the land here is below sea level. And every time people tried to expand the city, the Mississippi promptly flooded it.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Why did people stay here? I'm — it became obvious very, very quickly after the French came that this was a really lousy place to live.

OLIVER HOUCK: They made a lot of money. They made a lot of money because they were the transfer point for all the shipping that came out of the belly of the country and went to France and went to South America and went to England and all of the ships coming in — you had to pass by New Orleans.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: So they launched what's become one of the biggest construction projects in history. To protect their investments. As of today, the U.S. Army has built 2000 miles of levees to stop the Mississippi from flooding. And until recently, scientists thought that these walls of soil and concrete and steel had made New Orleans safe. They never dreamed that the levees would come back to haunt them.

OLIVER HOUCK: So the irony of history and the evolution of the problem has been that we've been like one of those old citadels in an adventure story, defended ourselves against the enemy that we knew, which was the river. But to the rear and to the flank was this other threat that we're only beginning now to appreciate, and it may be too late to prevent.

WALTER CRONKITE (FROM TAPE): The remnants of killer Hurricane Camille continued to spread death and destruction —

DANIEL ZWERDLING: In 1969, Hurricane Camille rattled the country. It was a rare Category 5. Here's the problem: when government officials built the levees to protect New Orleans, they designed them to hold off much smaller kinds of storms. They didn't expect that a hurricane as big as Camille would show up in our lifetimes, or our grandchildren's lifetimes.

WALTER CRONKITE: Hurricane Camille was by any yardstick the greatest storm of any kind ever to hit the nation...

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Camille missed New Orleans, but not by much. And it suggested that maybe officials had been short sighted. Then nature shook the nation again in 1992. Remember Hurricane Andrew? That was another Category Five storm — Andrew was the most expensive natural disaster in America's history. And the center of the storm didn't even hit a city. Well, after Andrew, officials in Louisiana began to worry more about New Orleans. They came up with elaborate evacuation plans:

PROMOTIONAL VIDEO: "If the warning goes out, by all means, evacuate!"

DANIEL ZWERDLING: And then another storm came that a lot of those plans wouldn't work.

JOE SUHAYDA: Well, Hurricane Georges was one for which the track was to the east of the city and had the potential of flooding the city.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: At the last minute, Georges faded and veered away from the city — and that was lucky.

JOE SUHAYDA: What happened to the people that did evacuate is that they got into massive traffic jams and many of them spent the worst part of the hurricane either on a — on the highway, stopped, or had pulled off to the side of the road.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: I'm trying to picture tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people trapped in these traffic jams as the hurricane is hitting the city and the water level is starting to rise. What would happen to them?

JOE SUHAYDA: They would be washed away and there would be really no way for the help — there is public help emergency services — people to get to them to help them.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: And on top of those worries, scientists say that the threat to New Orleans keeps getting bigger. New Orleans has always had a huge natural shield that helps protect it from storms: there are miles and miles of wetlands, between the city and the Gulf of Mexico. When a hurricane blows over them, it loses some of its power. But as we reported a couple of weeks ago, this shield is breaking apart. And here's the irony: the wetlands are disappearing because of the levees. The very levees that were supposed to protect New Orleans. They stopped the Mississippi River from flooding, but it turns out that they also triggered an environmental chain reaction, which is starving the wetlands to death. Scientists say if this shield keeps crumbling over the next few decades, then it won't take a giant storm to cause a disaster. A much weaker, more common kind of hurricane could devastate New Orleans.

WALTER MAESTRI: And here we will have all of the different operations of local government that have responsibility to actually carry out specific function.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Back at his command center, Walter Maestri is coordinating how government officials would handle the emergency.

WALTER MAESTRI: We've got emergency medical here, public works is here, resource management...

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Maestri says consider this troubling fact: more than a million people live in this area, and they're stuck in a geological trap.

WALTER MAESTRI: New Orleans is, if you think about it, it's a soup bowl. Think of a soup bowl. And the soup bowl — the high edges of the soup bowl — is the Mississippi River. It's amazing to say, but the highest elevation in the city of New Orleans is at the Mississippi River.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Maestri says, imagine what happens if a hurricane like Andrew comes raging up from the Gulf.

WALTER MAESTRI: The hurricane is spinning counter-clockwise. It's been pushing in front of it water from the Gulf of Mexico for days. It's now got a wall of water in front of it some 30, 40 feet high. As it approaches the levees of the — that surround the city, it tops those levees. As the storm continues to pass over. Now Lake Pontchartrain, that water from Lake Pontchartrain is now pushed on to that — those population which has been fleeing from the western side and everybody's caught in the middle. The bowl now completely fills. And we've now got the entire community underwater some 20, 30 feet underwater. Everything is lost.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Remember the levees which the Army built, to hold smaller floods out of the bowl? Maestri says now those levees would doom the city. Because they'd trap the water in.

WALTER MAESTRI: It's going to look like a massive shipwreck. There's going to be, you know, everything that the water has carried in is going to be there. Alligators, moccasins, you know every kind of rodent that you could think of. All of your sewage treatment plants are under water. And of course the material is flowing free in the community. Disease becomes a distinct possibility now. The petrochemicals that are produced all up and down the Mississippi River — much of that has floated into this bowl. I mean this has become, you know — the biggest toxic waste dump in the world now is the city of New Orleans because of what has happened.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Federal officials say that nobody in America has confronted these conditions before. Not across an entire city. Not after an earthquake. Not after floods. Not even after September 11th. So they've gone to the US Army Corps of Engineers, and they've asked them to figure out — how would the city even begin to function? Jay Combe has spent the last few years assembling a doomsday manual.

JAY COMBE: Street signs will be gone. The things that you normally think, "Well, I'm going 'round the corner of Broadway and St. Charles," and that place won't be there.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: So Combe's been mapping crucial structures with longitude and latitude, because he says emergency crews will have to use navigation devices just to find out where they are. And Combe says, "how will they get the water out of the city?" For the past hundred years, New Orleans has operated one of the biggest pumping systems in the world. Every time there's a major rain, colossal turbines suck up the water and pump it out of "The Bowl." Combe says that won't work after a big hurricane.

JAY COMBE: The problem is that the city's been under water, the pumps are flooded. They don't operate now. We have to get the pumps back in operation and in order to get the pumps back in operation, we have to get the water out of the city.


JAY COMBE: That's correct.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: And here's perhaps the most troubling question of all: if a huge hurricane does hit New Orleans, how many people will die?

JAY COMBE: I think of a terrible disaster. I think of 100,000, and that's just my guess. I think that there's a terrible lack of perception. The last serious hurricane we had here was in 1965. That's close to 40 years ago. So, we've dodged bullets three times since Betsy and I'm not sure we can keep counting on the hurricane changing its mind and going someplace else.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Stories about disasters in America usually end on an optimistic note. People rebound. The nation rebuilds. Life gradually gets back to normal. But officials in Louisiana are facing another possibility: if a monster storm strikes New Orleans, this city might never come back.

DANIEL ZWERDLING (ADDRESSING SUHAYDA): Are you seriously suggesting that the nation might have to abandon the city of New Orleans?

JOE SUHAYDA: I think there would be some concern perhaps of rather than trying to rebuild the city would be then to just demolish those areas that couldn't be refurbished, reclaimed and basically start from some kind of scratch or blank slate, so to speak.

WALTER MAESTRI: And if I'm the Senator from South Dakota or North Dakota or wherever, you know, am I going to want to vote the kind of massive funding that it's going to take to rebuild it, given the fact that nobody can promise me that it's not gonna happen again two weeks later?

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Officials are stunned by this scenario. They say there's got to be something they can do to save New Orleans and save people's lives. So they're thinking about building more levees and building them higher. They're thinking about building new highways, so people can evacuate faster. And they're calling for a massive project to rebuild some of the vanishing wetlands. But scientists like Joe Suhayda say these projects would take decades. He says America can't wait that long. New Orleans is going to drown and it needs a life raft, now.

JOE SUHAYDA: What we have here is an example of the kind of structure that would be part of the community haven wall.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Suhayda wants to build a massive wall around the historic heart of New Orleans. It'd be like the walls that protected medieval cities. He says that way, at least the core of New Orleans might survive. This particular wall we're on is just a tiny example but Suhayda's version would be three stories high and miles around.

JOE SUHAYDA: It'd take about 12 miles to protect a critical part of the city where we have the central business district, where we have several hospitals, the governmental buildings, the schools and other areas that could be used for shelters.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Suhayda pictures the scene unfolding like a disaster movie: the hurricane's approaching, government officials sound the alarm: "get to the haven, if you can."

JOE SUHAYDA: And so through gates like this people would come in buses, walking or automobiles and get behind the wall.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: This is amazing to think about. I'm envisioning those last few minutes when the government knows it's going to have to close this gate and all the other gates and the wall, and people are either going to be in and protected or out and in danger of dying, I mean is there a siren that says, you know, "Everybody get inside the gate. Two minutes left. One minute left"?

JOE SUHAYDA: Well it would come down, of course, to a decision to actually close the gates. I can imagine people trying to carry their dogs, and their prized possessions, and fighting — winds that at this point would be very very strong — which would make, you know, walking over the ground very very difficult. Some people probably falling down and needing help and maybe there'll be crews and people available that would actually go out and try to assist these people by picking them up or putting them in wheelchairs or some such things to expedite the whole movement. But there'd come a time when the decision would have to be made to stop any entrance to the haven.

DANIEL ZWERDLIG: We've tried to find scientists who'd say that these predictions of doom could never really come true and we haven't been able to find them. The main debate seems to be, when the country is facing different kinds of threats, which ones should get the most attention? The federal government has been cutting money from hurricane protection projects. Partly to pay for the war against terrorists.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Do you think that the President of the United States and Congress understand that people like you and the scientists studying this think the city of New Orleans could very possibly disappear?

WALTER MAESTRI: I think they know that, I think that they've been told that. I don't know that anybody, though, psychologically, you know, has come to grips with that as a potential real situation. Just like none of us could possibly come to grips with the loss of the World Trade Center. And it's still hard for me to envision that it's gone, you know, and it's impossible for someone like me to think that the French Quarter of New Orleans could be gone.

The Risk of Hurricane Destruction in New Orleans

September 6, 2002

The Mississippi River delta is disappearing. One of America’s most vibrant and productive ecological regions is slipping into the Gulf of Mexico at an alarming rate. Every year, a chunk of land nearly as big as Manhattan crumbles and washes away. As it erodes, it not only threatens one of the country’s most abundant fisheries and a vital home for wildlife, but it imperils the nation’s energy supply. And, as the coast of Louisiana continues to slip away, tens of thousands of lives are at risk from devastating hurricanes. The crisis in the delta could reach catastrophic levels in the next few decades, with far-reaching environmental, human, and economic consequences.

In “The City in a Bowl,” NOW with Bill Moyers returns to the Mississippi River delta to examine another ominous effect of this crisis — the risk that a massive hurricane could drown New Orleans gets worse every single year.

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