Hurricane Gustav is sweeping into Louisiana as this is being written (Monday afternoon). The center of the storm is slightly west of New Orleans, between New Orleans and Houma, which is about fifty miles southwest of New Orleans.
Even though the storm has been reduced to a category 2 hurricane and right now the storm surge appears to be 8 to 9 feet, probably not enough to breach the Mississippi River levees, there is still huge cause for concern. A major breach of the Mississippi River levees would be much worse than the flooding after Katrina. It probably would kill the city completely.
Even if the worst avoids New Orleans, there will still be very substantial damage to South Louisiana towns and cities, most who have no levee or flood protection.
I grew up in Baton Rouge, and still have many friends and relatives in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. All of the New Orleans friends have evacuated, the Baton Rouge relatives have not. I am keeping my fingers crossed.
In late 2004, my son came to us and gave us the happy news that he was going to get married to a New Orleans woman. I was ecstatic! New Orleans weddings are fabled, and his fiancée came from a New Orleans family who knew how to give one!
Well no, they told us. She had been practicing law in DC for about ten years and my son, of course, was a native. Most of their friends were from here, so the wedding would be held at St Matthews Cathedral. Not schlock, of course, but not New Orleans!
They set the date for September 3, 2005! All of the guests from South Louisiana came to DC from somewhere else. They had all evacuated, fortunately. They have left their city once again.
Hurricanes and tropical storms are a way of life in South Louisiana, though Katrina was the most destructive ever. I remember vividly Hurricane Audrey which swept across the southwest Gulf Coast of Louisiana in 1957. It totally destroyed 95 percent of all the buildings in two coastal parishes (counties). More than 500 people were killed, mostly in and around the small sea level town of Cameron. Virtually no one left town when they heard about the storm. And virtually no one was left when the storm moved on.
A friend joined a fleet of rescue boats with his 35-foot cabin cruiser. He told chilling stories of seeing numerous bodies of people and livestock hanging from trees more than twenty feet up. The storm surge exceeded twenty feet, not good in an area where all the land is at or below sea level.
The failure of governments at all levels during and in the aftermath of Katrina is legend. It does not appear that this is happening again, though you will know for sure when you read this column.
I hope we dodge this very lethal bullet.