August 28, 2002
All it would take is one category three hurricane to devastate New Orleans. Our city had a near miss in late September of 1998, when Category Two-strength Hurricane Georges turned away from its direct path toward New Orleans and hit Mississippi instead.
Despite the last-minute redirection, Tulane and other parts of New Orleans suffered some minor damage, in the form of downed trees and flooding. Legends abound about the ensuing inflatable furniture races across campus. Hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, is a major concern for the Gulf Coastal and southeastern United States.
Tropical disturbances and hurricanes are particularly dangerous to New Orleans as well as the water levels of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. With the city sitting mostly beneath sea level, at the bottom of a "bowl" bordered by Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, a direct hit from a major storm system could be catastrophic. Last June, John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein of The Times-Picayune published a five-part special report, entitled "Wasting Away," about the threat of hurricanes in New Orleans.
The series described a theoretical scenario in which a major hurricane (a Category Three or higher on the Saffir-Simpson Scale) was approaching the city from the due south. They speculated as to how the situation might play out. In the scenario, winds from the outer edges of the storm would raise the level of Lake Pontchartrain from five to eight feet, and the arrival of the eye of the hurricane would push the water over the top of the levee and into the New Orleans metro area.
The city's pumping systems would fail within hours. Some simulations put parts of New Orleans under as much as 30 feet of water. The hurricane's sustained winds (in excess of 130 mph, with gusts over 200 mph) would knock down trees, tear apart houses and spawn deadly tornadoes. Survivors of the storm would be left stranded on high ground, surrounded by water full of sewage, gases and chemicals as well as rats, alligators, snakes and other animals.
Flooded interstates and bridges that had been damaged or destroyed would likely hamper rescue efforts. After the lake waters subsided, the same levees that were designed to keep water out of the city would now keep the water in, tantamount to trapping water in a bowl. Pumping the water out could take as long as six months, according to Jay Combe, a coastal hydraulic engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers. According to emergency officials, the "Filling the Bowl" scenario is the worst possible natural disaster that could occur in the United States.
The Times-Picayune quoted John Clizbe, national vice president for disaster services with the American Red Cross, as putting the death toll between 25,000 and 100,000. Tulane University has policies in place to deal with the threat of tropical storms and hurricanes. David White, assistant director of Insurance and Risk Management, said the University administration, in conjunction with city, parish and emergency officials, will determine action on a case by case basis.
"What we do will depend on the circumstances," White said. In the case of a lower level hurricane, a Category One or Two, Tulane may consider evacuating students to taller residence halls such as Butler, Sharp and Monroe.
In the case of a severe storm, Tulane students would be evacuated from the city altogether. News of Tulane's plans will be disseminated via e-mail, the Tulane Emergency Website (http://emergency. tulane.edu) and the Tulane AlertLine (862-8080 locally, 1-877-862-8080 toll free). The Emergency Website and AlertLine will be posted with up-to-date information for students and parents.
White strongly urges Tulane students, especially those who do not have cars, to plan ahead and make arrangements to leave the city on their own in case of an emergency. There will be contingency plans as a last resort for those who cannot find a ride out of town, including arrangements for buses to take stranded students to Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Mississippi.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org