The worst case after all: we're losing New Orleans

Categories: National
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News outlets have carried almost nothing but Katrina dispatches and video footage since the hurricane came aground Monday morning, but in the past 24 hours they've been surreally slow to elucidate what's going on in New Orleans following the break of a critical levee on Lake Pontchartrain either late Monday or early Tuesday.


That levee break was said to be from 200-300 feet wide at Tuesday midday--as far as I know, no one has broadcast aerial pictures of it, though there have been repeated images of the less consequential Industrial Canal breach, some of them passed off as pictures of the Pontchartrain canal break--and elementary hydraulics dictate that the breach will only widen as long as it's open. The lake will continue emptying into the New Orleans basin below it at an increasing rate until either a) the levee break is closed, or b) the water level inside the basin is equal to the water level in the lake. In that event, the city is a total loss. Forget water damage per se; the toxicity of the former site of New Orleans would be staggering both in terms of chemical pollutants and organic ones--the most virulent and dangerous body of water in the world, sitting in a natural bowl below sea level that cannot drain itself.

So how are efforts to close the levee going? Late last night the cable networks reported that an initial effort to dam the breach with sandbags had failed, and that heavy military equipment was supposed to arrive on-site late in the night and begin work today. A regional Homeland Security official, Mark Smith, told the Shreveport Times on Tuesday, "That breach is not going to be fixed today, tomorrow, or the next day." (See this MSNBC dispatch.)

There is no overstating the magnitude of this disaster. Those $25 billion damage estimates still being circulated are ludicrous--a Mississippi congressman told Fox News there is that much damage in his state alone. Fifty billion won't begin to fix New Orleans. Much of the city is already destroyed, many of its buildings structurally undermined and the rest so profoundly contaminated they will have to be razed in any event. And if the basin keeps taking on water, the same will eventually be true of all but the tiny portion of the city that is above sea level, mostly at the southern edge along the Mississippi River levee.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has stood head and shoulders above practically every other official in the clarity and candor of his public comments. Last night on CNN, he said simply, "This is the bowl effect that you hear people talk about... and now the bowl is filling up."

We will post more notes and links about storm damage, and particularly the levee breach in New Orleans, through the day today. Here's a note from New Orleans TV station WDSU on the levee-plugging effort this morning.

And here are the NYT and WashPost's pretty-good levee break stories from this morning.

Watch the WWL-TV live feed here.



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