Six Feet of Water in the Streets of Evangeline

by Kieran Healy on August 28, 2005

“The whole of New Orleans is being evacuated”: as “Hurricane Katrina”: moves toward the coast. It’s been known for a long time that New Orleans could be devastated by a hurricane under just the right (meaning, very, very wrong) circumstances. The city is located in a bowl-shaped depression with water on three sides, and under the “worst-case”: “outcome”:, if it flooded severely it would be tremendously difficult to get rid of the water. There’s a scholarly literature on the danger. “One government report says”:

bq. New Orleans is the most vulnerable major city on the Gulf Coast and perhaps in the entire United States. Had Hurricane Georges not taken a last minute turn to the east in 1998, major portions of New Orleans would have flooded. It would likely have been one of the worst disasters of the century in terms of loss of life and damage. Additionally, Louisiana has extensive infrastructure of oil and gas facilities, chemical plants, and hazardous, industrial and residential landfills. Most of these facilities are in flood prone areas and within the confines of levee systems protecting housing and other structures from flooding. Even in areas where mitigation strategies have been engineered (i.e., levee, drainage, and pumping systems), such designs are unable to capture and control all storm water runoff from occasional extreme rain events.

“Another, from LSU,”:, tries to map the likely range of flooding from a category 2 or 3 storm. It’s not pretty. Hopefully things won’t go so badly, of course. But then again it might be the biggest thing to hit the region since the “Great Mississippi Flood”: of 1927.

_Light Relief Update_: In the “CNN story on this event”:, the mayor of New Orleans is quoted as saying “About 70 percent of New Orleans is below sea level, and is protected by a series of levies.” I’m sure our “libertarian friends”: would heartily endorse this statement, but I don’t think the transcript quite conveys the mayor’s meaning.



jayann 08.28.05 at 1:36 pm

Not the whole of New Orleans; 100,000 lack transport and/or money (and then there are the people in hospitals who can’t be moved). People who can’t leave have been told to go to the Superbowl.


Kieran Healy 08.28.05 at 2:01 pm

Of course — it’s extremely difficult to evacuate a city of that size, and many aren’t in a position to go anywhere.

I think many who can’t go will be at the Superdome rather than the Superbowl :)


rollo 08.28.05 at 2:55 pm

Protected by a series of levities.


nathaniel 08.28.05 at 3:23 pm

American Radio Works actually had a documentary earlier this year looking at the potential impact of a Category 5 hurricane on New Orleans. Scary enough then; horrifying now:


nathaniel 08.28.05 at 3:44 pm

Oops, the above aired in’02.


Jake 08.28.05 at 4:04 pm

I am extremely dismayed to imagine what is likely to happen. But I did like the quote from the story nathaniel references: “I was here when they thought Georges was coming through. I thought well, I’ll live and die in New Orleans. It’s better than living and dying in Dallas.”


jayann 08.28.05 at 6:29 pm

I think many who can’t go will be at the Superdome rather than the Superbowl :)

er, yes — well, they sound similar :)

I am concerned for those people (though apparently the Superbowl is pretty sturdy)


bob mcmanus 08.28.05 at 6:56 pm

“I thought well, I’ll live and die in New Orleans. It’s better than living and dying in Dallas.” ”

As a longtime Dallas resident….never mind. I pray and actually predict that landfall will a little further west than currently expected. A few drops of water and 5 degrees lower temperature would be a Godsend here in Dallas.

Not to wish bad things for whomever, but it has to land somewhere.


Steve LaBonne 08.28.05 at 7:40 pm

We’ve had decades of warnings. Would any civilized country have done as little to protect such a national treasure, not to mention to prevent the foreseeable deaths of tens of thousands and homelessness of as many as a million?


Jake 08.28.05 at 8:02 pm

Nothing personal, Bob. Some of my best friends are Texans.


washerdreyer 08.28.05 at 8:12 pm

re 9:



Hektor Bim 08.28.05 at 8:39 pm

What precisely would you suggest be done? Move the whole city? The city is built in an unfortunate spot, and the river wants to inundate it, and then move farther to the west. There’s only so much the Army Corps of Engineers can do really.


Hektor Bim 08.28.05 at 8:42 pm

Oh, one more comment. Evangeline is actually a Cajun story, and the Cajuns don’t really live in New Orleans. The heart of Acadiana is farther west, centered around Lafayette.


Steve LaBonne 08.28.05 at 8:44 pm

The height of the levees could and should have been raised to 30 feet long since. Cost- what we spend every week in Iraq, about $1 billion.


Hektor Bim 08.28.05 at 8:49 pm


You should read this article about the levees:


Steve LaBonne 08.28.05 at 8:58 pm

Yes, after they’re overtopped the levies will greatly exacerbate the disaster. That’s exactly why they needed to be raised enough not to be overtopped even by a worst-case storm surge. As engineers have been saying at least since Camille in 1969. We’ve been relying on luck, and our luck is about to run out.


Steve LaBonne 08.28.05 at 9:02 pm

That “libertarian” spelling is contagious!


Bill Gardner 08.28.05 at 10:32 pm

A recent post on dKos argued that if we do have a disaster, the best thing to do is to contribute cash to the Red Cross. Donated goods are expensive to ship and distribute.


anon 08.29.05 at 12:42 am

13 “Evangeline is actually a Cajun story, …”
Perhaps you’re not a
Randy Newman
fan and didn’t recognize the allusion, but Evangeline is also a town in La. The song is about the Mississippi River flood of 1927.


MFB 08.29.05 at 7:15 am

I note that Katrina has been downgraded to an Awfully Big Hurricane from a Terrifyingly Gigantic Hurricane. Is it possible that some of the consequences are exaggerated? Or will all the iron lace in the French Quarter end up in Arkanasa?


Steve LaBonne 08.29.05 at 7:23 am

It’s still plenty big enough to inundate N.O. The question is whether it tracks just right, if “right” is the appropriate word. If the eye goes just west of the city, the winds from the northeast quadrant of the storm will push a huge amount of water from the Gulf into the very shallow Lake Ponchartrain- that’s the basis for the nightmare “filling the bowl” scenario. So the best news is that the storm appears to have veered a little more to the east. We won’t know for hours (I write at 8:20 am EDT) whether N.O has succeeded in dodging yet another bullet. But even if not wiped out for good, the city will suffer devastating damage. We all need to get ready to dig deeply in our pockets for emergency relief.


Hektor Bim 08.29.05 at 7:40 am

Ahh, I was more thinking about the Evangeline story, which is all about heartbreak in the aftermath of the ethnic cleansing of the Acadians – the origin of the modern day Cajuns.

Who decided to go twentieth century on me? :)

Steve, there’s still the problem of loss of coastal waterways, which tend to absorb excess water. The levees exacerbate the destruction of those areas, thus making storms worse. So there are problems either way.


Steve LaBonne 08.29.05 at 7:53 am

Perhaps the river levees should never have been constructed; it’s a bit late to have that debate now, unless tomorrow there is no longer a New Orleans to protect. (Even then, there is still a massive levee system south of the city protecting things like oil refineries, and it’s not about to be dismantled any time soon.) But I’m talking about the Lake Ponchartrain levee, which AFAIK does not contribute to wetland erosion. That’s the one which is not as high as it should be, leaving open the horrible possibility of “filling the bowl”.


d. j. wolf 08.29.05 at 9:43 am

It is likely that a lot of uninsured property owners will be walking away from mortgaged properties. Are there any estimates out there of the amount of mortgaged properties on which banks can be expected to foreclose? What effect would such a foreclosure wave have on the national mortgage bubble?


Steve LaBonne 08.29.05 at 10:21 am

Thank goodness, New Orleans appears to have been spared the worst, though the damage will still be plenty bad. But surely it’s now time to get serious about protecting the city from monster storm surges in the future. Tropical storm activity in the Atlantic appears to be increasing each season, and sooner or later one of these big storms won’t miss.


y81 08.29.05 at 1:22 pm

Why do people suggest that building up the New Orleans levees is a national responsibility? It would seem the costs of such an effort would properly be borne by New Orleans property owners. I mean, New Orleans may be a national treasure, but when you go there, the hotels, nightclubs, restaurants etc. all charge you money to enjoy the national treasure.


Steve LaBonne 08.29.05 at 1:51 pm

I know N.O is not nearly in the same category in historical or aesthetic importance- but if you were Italian would you say the same about Venice?


person 08.29.05 at 2:19 pm

What precisely would you suggest be done? Move the whole city? The city is built in an unfortunate spot, and the river wants to inundate it, and then move farther to the west. There’s only so much the Army Corps of Engineers can do really.

Actually, one of the lessons of the recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean was that the places where mangrove forests hadn’t been cut down for development right up to the beach did comparatively quite well. It’s tempting to imagine bigger better levees, but a more realistic and cost-effective solution may simply be a land-use policy which recognizes the value of more wetlands and mangrove swamps. (In conjunction with the present levees, which are about as large as is reasonable.) This same benefit would apply to the entire Gulf Coast, btw.


Ramar 08.29.05 at 2:21 pm

Why do people suggest that building up the New Orleans levees is a national responsibility?

Well, there are the thousands of people that could die if the levees failed.


Matt Weiner 08.29.05 at 2:27 pm

y81, from accounts it seems as though the people most likely to drown if the bowl had been filled–the people who could not evacuate, because they didn’t have cars or something–were not major property owners. And I would anyway say that it is a legitimate interest of the government to save a major city from destruction, even if it is not a national treasure. I would support federal funding to save Dallas or Houston from destruction if it were threatened. (One might be concerned about moral hazard here, but since the city already exists it’s hard to see what to do about that.)

I’m not sure about this, but isn’t the problem with the levees that they divert water when water levels are normal? I don’t see how raising an existing levee would make things worse.


jet 08.30.05 at 7:23 am

Why does everyone pick on Texas cities? If you want to pick on a Republican city, pick on Indianapolis. Per capita donations were the most lopsided of any city towards the Republicans in 2004. Poor Dallas and Houston at least have large Democrat minorities.


Hektor Bim 08.30.05 at 9:02 am


People pick on Texas cities like Dallas and Houston because they are ugly and unpleasant, especially in the summertime. I’ve never seen so many religious nutjobs in one place as the time I flew into the Dallas airport.


jami 08.30.05 at 11:52 am

there’s a blogger in trouble in new orleans. if anyone knows someone with a boat in new orleans, please comment here: …1.html#comments


Jake McGuire 08.30.05 at 12:00 pm

person – wooded swamps provide damping (i.e. they resist water flowing through them quickly) not blockage, like a levee. This is great when you have a gigantic surge of water over ten or fifteen minutes, but not so useful when the gigantic surge of water is spread over twelve hours, and not useful at all when the city is under sea level.


Matt Weiner 08.30.05 at 2:25 pm

Jet, I (as of this month) live in Texas actually, though not in either of those cities. So consider it a regional cheap shot. I would have named the city I live in, but it’s fairly obscure and I might have been accused of special pleading.


Gary 08.30.05 at 4:59 pm

Re: 32, speaking of prize winning, unpleasant nut jobs, Hektor, pat yourself on the back.


Steve LaBonne 08.30.05 at 4:59 pm

Don’t look now but the “bowl” is filling after all due to levee breaches and pump failures, just a little more slowly than a storm surge would have done. The situation in NO is truly apocalyptic.

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