Gulf Coast faces the worst
Conditions are already deteriorating along the northern Gulf Coast as Hurricane Katrina bears down, with top sustained winds if 160 mph and higher. The storm's central pressure is now 902 millibars. That's lower than either Hurricane Camille (1969) or Hurricane Andrew (1992), the last two Category 5 storms to strike the U.S.
New Orleans faces a potential for catastrophic flooding if the storm surge reaches the predicted 18 to 22 feet. The levies along Lake Ponchartrain are just 17 feet high - lower in places. City streets could flood to depths of 20 feet, devastating the historic French Quarter, the Garden District and other tourist attractions. The city's 22 pumps could not keep up with such flooding, or even with the heaviest rains expected from the storm.
The problem is that the city lies below sea level. Although it was founded in 1718 on a high spot along the Mississippi River, the pumping of groundwater has since caused the land beneath it to subside, while sea levels have risen. On average, the city is now 6 to 8 feet below sea level, protected by levies, floodgates and pumps. If they fail, the city drowns.
Disaster planning models predict deaths in the tens of thousands in a worst-case category 5 storm. Evacuations have gone extremely well in recent days, but perhaps 100,000 people are expected to remain behind.
In addition to deaths, Category 5 winds and the flooding of New Orleans would cause huge property losses. Insurance companies have been increasingly reluctant to sell property incurance policies in the city. Flooding would also leave behind a horrific stew of sewage, trash, storm debris, ruined possessions, petrochemicals washed in from the region's oil-related industrial infrastructure. Add alligators, snakes and fire ants to the mix ... well, it's not a pretty picture.
And the damage to the nation's oil and gas infrastructure could push gasoline and home heating costs even higher. The New Orleans region hosts about a quarter of our oil and gas production. Oil and gas pipelines crosscross the region and offshore platforms do the drilling and pumping.
The area is also the site of a third of America's seafood landings. And, it's one of the country's largest port complexes, moving 16 percent of our cargo.
Buckle your seatbelts.