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Hurricane's Potential Impact on New Orleans


We turn now to oceanographer Joe Suhayda in Baton Rouge. For the past decade, he's been using computer models to predict what a Category 5 hurricane would do to the city of New Orleans.

Thanks for joining us, Dr. Suhayda.

Dr. JOE SUHAYDA (Oceanographer): Well, thank you.

LYDEN: Picture what could happen for me, if you will. Take me into the French Quarter, and tell me about things like rising water and the potential here.

Dr. SUHAYDA: Well, the city--and I think people are probably aware that the city, at least in part, is below sea level, which means that the ground elevation might be as much as five to 10 feet below sea level. So if the city were to flood to, say, an elevation of 10 feet for the storm surge itself, then you would have water in some places in the city that would be 20 feet above the ground.

LYDEN: So the balconies in the French Quarter?

Dr. SUHAYDA: French Quarter's a little higher, but certainly with this Category 5 1/2 storm that Katrina is, we could have flooding up into the midpoint of the second story of buildings in the French Quarter.


Officials are really trying to get people out of there today. Is that even possible? When you have a mandatory evacuation in a metropolitan area of more than a million people, can you get everyone out of harm's way?

Dr. SUHAYDA: No, I've never seen a simulation or any suggestions that the city would be evacuated. I think there'll be some residual--several hundred thousand people that will not leave the city for a whole variety of reasons, including the hundred thousand or so that don't have automobiles.

ELLIOTT: The mayor has arranged for some of them to be bused to the Superdome. Is that a safe place for them to be?

Dr. SUHAYDA: I think the way he characterized it is that it was a refuge of last resort, and that means that if you're in a low-lying, single-story home in a low part of the city, you're probably--or certainly you'd be better off in the Superdome, which is elevated and is a concrete structure. But it is not, in a more traditional Red Cross sense, a true shelter, that is people would still be at risk in the Superdome.

ELLIOTT: You know, I'm curious why there isn't a better shelter. I mean, certainly officials aren't surprised that New Orleans would be in the path of a major hurricane at some point.

Dr. SUHAYDA: The reason the Red Cross has elected not to open shelters in the city is that there are hurricane conditions, such as the one we're facing, that everyone knows would overtop the levee, that is the levees are only designed--or are designed--for about a Category 3 storm. This is a Category 5. It's not going to be any surprise if you put 10 tons on a bridge that tells you it can only hold five tons, you know. And so the Red Cross said, you know, `We're not going to bring our people into an area that themselves could be at risk and would have to then be evacuated under even worse conditions of the city filling up high water and high winds and all the rest of that.' So we don't have shelters because there's no place in the city that can be designated as free from flooding under any reasonable, foreseeable circumstances, like a Category 5.

LYDEN: And how concerned--and, of course, we're concerned--about the potential loss of life should we be?

Dr. SUHAYDA: Well, I would say, you know, from looking at what we've done in the past in terms of exercises where we've run these models, I think they're anticipating tens of thousands of casualties under, quote, "the worst-case scenario." And that means preparing to treat and deal with and manage that number of people in terms of medical supplies and food and shelter and the rest of it. It's just, you know, something that you might anticipate happening that you might have to deal with.

LYDEN: Dr. Suhayda, not to press too hard, but you've been preparing for this for years. How are you feeling today?

Dr. SUHAYDA: Well, I mean, I hope I don't--you know, we don't have what is potentially happening here because this is, really, the worst case in terms of the path and intensity. It's one of these things that, as an academic person you think has a statistical probability and, of course, you want to deal with it and try to address it. But the reality is really, you know, troubling. I mean, you know, I don't feel very good right now.

LYDEN: Joe Suhayda is an oceanographer and expert in emergency preparedness. He spoke to us from Baton Rouge, where he's watching the progress of Hurricane Katrina.

Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Dr. SUHAYDA: Well, thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.