August 31, 2008.
While New Orleans evacuates from the path of Gustav, a massive weather system off the west coast of Africa shows the potential to develop into hurricane “Ike” within 48 hours. I expect this system to develop into a hurricane more powerful and destructive than Gustav. At this point its path is unpredictable with current forecasting methods, but it appears to be following the track of its predecessors, Hurricane Gustav and Tropical Storm Hanna.
New Orleans is obviously prepared to evacuate in the face of such storms. FEMA is prepared, the National Guard is prepared, if only for disaster. But is New Orleans truly prepared for success in the ongoing likelihood of hurricane hits from increasingly more powerful storms in the future? Hardly. Levee construction is incomplete and the parameters for their ongoing reconstruction may already be obsolete in the face of changing climatic conditions. The very ground upon which New Orleans rests is unstable and low. The city sinks 2-3 inches yearly, and the levee system is the only barricade and defense against storm surges and flooding. There are no natural geological formations buffering New Orleans. Wind and flood sweep in from the Gulf unhindered, just like gentle coastal waves and breezes sweep over a shallow sand beach.
Sadly, but understandably, New Orleans is unprepared for the storms it will continue to face. It is not prepared for the climatic changes to come, nor the geographical liabilities of its location. In order to truly be prepared New Orleans will have to have much more than an adequate evacuation system in place and levees based on historical models. It will need more than courageous citizens willing to return and rebuild. It will need to be sustained by more than a philosophical resignation to endure its placement in an unstable and dangerous location.
In the case of New Orleans, the unthinkable needs to be thought about with courage and openness. New Orleans requires monumental re-engineering of its infrastructure and massive new construction designed to meet and overcome the challenges it faces now and in the future. Hard questions must be asked and answered about these issues. Is it feasible? If so, how? If not, what then? Until these questions are faced and honestly answered the preparedness of New Orleans will amount to no more than an ongoing ebb and flow of humanity in and out of the city, retreating inland on the edge of storm surges, then returning as the surge recedes to a once again ruined and devastated plain.