Is something worse than Katrina headed toward New Orleans?
A highly regarded hurricane model now projects that Isaac will make landfall on a worst-case trajectory for New Orleans as a borderline Category 3/Category 4 storm about 60 hours from now.
The leading hurricane forecast models look increasingly ominous. Over the last 12 hours there has been a steady drift toward a more than alarming forecast: many models now forecast an explosive strengthening of Isaac over the Gulf of Mexico and project a landfall on the central Gulf Coast with New Orleans right in the line of fire. Like the model above, this forecast model image here, also posted by crack weather blogger Brendan Loy, projects 1oo+mph winds blowing from water from Lake Pontchartrain into New Orleans, a scenario that might test the city’s revamped defenses past their limit. Additionally, some models show the storm moving very slowly at that point, meaning not only that the wind and surge would persist, but that heavy rains would challenge the city’s drainage system.
Chaos and catastrophe, in other words, with a risk of a Katrina-grade meltdown. (Katrina struck the city as a less intense Category 2 storm.)
It is much too early, of course, to project Isaac’s course and strength with any confidence. But if these forecasts prove correct, it is already very late in the day for the people of New Orleans, the authorities of Louisiana and the Obama administration to prepare for a worst case scenario.
A major Gulf Coast hurricane event in the next few days, and especially one affecting New Orleans, offers the Obama administration a major opportunity and a major risk. Are we ready for a fast and effective evacuation from New Orleans this time, or will there be a repeat of the unholy fecklessness of the last response? Is FEMA ready to do a better job this time than last? How effective are the new flood defenses? What will the White House do and how is this response any better than President Bush’s?
In the event that New Orleans takes a direct hit from a major storm, the Obama administration could see a major boost — or it could be holed below the waterline. Another failure in the Gulf could set up a narrative of failure that would dog the administration right through the November election. A triumphant success, however, would significantly support the administration’s claims that government can work and that this White House is a better manager than the last one.
The probability that a powerful Isaac will make landfall near New Orleans remains low and hurricanes remain mysterious. But the administration needs to start now to do everything in its power to ensure if the unthinkable happens the people of the city and the region will be better prepared, better protected and better served than they were when Katrina hit.
UPDATE: Since this post was originally published, the National Weather Service has extended the hurricane watch to the New Orleans metropolitan area. We are still a long way from certainty on the forecast, but people in and around New Orleans should be thinking now about their storm plans. By the time you are sure the hurricane is coming, it is too late to prepare.