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Expert: Katrina could unleash disaster

Levees, such as this one along Bayou Lafourche, are vulnerable because they're made of earth, an expert says.




New Orleans (Louisiana)
Disasters (General)

(CNN) -- Flooding from Hurricane Katrina's Monday landfall could wreak catastrophe on New Orleans, overwhelming the city's water and sewage systems and leaving survivors in a bowl of toxic soup, a top hurricane expert said.

Some 25 feet of standing water was expected in many parts of the city -- almost twice the height of the average home -- and computer models suggest that more than 80 percent of buildings would be badly damaged or destroyed, said Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center and director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes in Baton Rouge. (Watch a report on the worst-case scenario)

On Monday, storm surge predictions abated to 15 to 20 feet.

Floodwaters from the east would carry toxic waste from the "Industrial Canal" area, nicknamed after the chemical plants there. From the west, floodwaters would flow through an industrial complex that includes refineries and chemical plants, said van Heerden, who has studied computer models about the impact of a strong hurricane for four years.

"These chemical plants [could] start flying apart, just as the other buildings do," said van Heerden. "So, we have the potential for release of benzene, hydrochloric acid, chlorine and so on." ( See the video report of how gasoline and unearthed coffins might worsen the situation)

Such a scenario could result in severe air and water pollution, he said.

In New Orleans, which lies below sea level, gas and diesel tanks are all above ground for the same reason that bodies are buried above ground.

In the event of a flood, "those tanks will start to float, shear their couplings, and we'll have the release of these rather volatile compounds," van Heerden added.

Because gasoline floats on water, "we could end up with some pretty severe and large -- area-wise -- fires."

"So, we're looking at a bowl full of highly contaminated water with contaminated air flowing around and, literally, very few places for anybody to go where they'll be safe."

Van Heerden described the dire possibilities.

"Imagine you're the poor person who decides not to evacuate: Your house will disintegrate around you. The best you'll be able to do is hang on to a light pole, and while you're hanging on, the fire ants from all the mounds -- of which there is two per yard on average -- will clamber up that same pole. And eventually, the fire ants will win."

The levees intended to protect the city vary in height, from as low as 10 feet above sea level to about 14 feet, he said. They too are vulnerable because they are made of earth, he said.

Waves a threat to levees

Previous studies have suggested a catastrophic toll in lives and property if a major hurricane were to hit the New Orleans area, where about 1.3 million people live.

Walter Maestri, emergency management director in neighboring Jefferson Parish, said Hurricane Georges in 1998 could have killed as many as 44,000 people had it struck the city directly.

"The way it's described, we describe it here, is Lake Pontchartrain has now become Lake New Orleans," he told CNN in 2004.

Van Heerden said levees built to protect New Orleans from Pontchartrain could be buffeted by waves from the lake, which is about 23 miles by 35 miles in area.

"You're going to have enormous waves develop on that lake, especially with as much as 14 hours of hurricane-force winds," he said.

Those waves will erode the levees, raising the possibility of their collapse, he said.

"This is what we've been saying has been going to happen for years," he said. "Unfortunately, it's coming true."

Rick Luettich, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Institute of Marine Sciences, compared Katrina's expected impact on areas far up the Mississippi to "grabbing the end of the bedcover and giving it a hard snap."

That snap will push "probably in excess of 10 feet" of floodwater up the river, he predicted. "It will propagate up the river like a wave," past Baton Rouge, more than 70 miles away, he said.

For 15 years, Luettich has been developing a hydrodynamic circulation model -- called AdCirc -- that he said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has endorsed to help emergency managers predict storm damage.

Apologizing for the possibility that his comment could be interpreted as somewhat ghoulish, he said, "This is, in some ways, a little bit exciting for us, because it's a real opportunity to test this technology we've developed and see how well it works."

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