Gustav Keeps Gulf Coast on Edge

For most of the country, this will be a long weekend, but for residents of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in particular, it will be a long wait. As of shortly after noon Eastern time today, Tropical Storm Gustav was just off Jamaica and heading almost due northwest, its most likely path, according to the National Hurricane Center, bringing it to landfall just west of New Orleans on Tuesday morning. Although Gustav is not yet officially a hurricane, according to the hurricane center’s latest bulletin, “Strengthening is likely during the next couple of days, and Gustav is expected to become a hurricane later today. Gustav could become a major hurricane before reaching western Cuba.” The storm has reportedly already killed 67 people. If Gustav stays on its predicted course, it will hit New Orleans almost three years to the day after the city was mangled by Hurricane Katrina. That Category 5 storm, the third-strongest hurricane in recorded history to make landfall in the U.S., was responsible for a final toll of more than 2,500 killed or missing, even though its center actually passed somewhat to the east of the city. The devastation to New Orleans occurred after two flood levees broke in the wake of the storm, inundating the city, which is largely below sea level. A few months after Katrina, Duke University coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey commented that then-recent U.S. Geological Survey research had shown that the entire Mississippi Delta region, including land, riverbeds and the offshore continental shelf, is sinking at an estimated rate of four feet a century. This phenomenal (in geological terms) rate of subsidence, he said, was attributed to not only the vast tonnage of sediment carried to the delta every year by the Mississippi River, but by ongoing oil and gas extraction in the region. Meanwhile, news reports are highlighting the fact that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ ambitious program to drastically upgrade New Orleans’ flood protection system is still at least three years from its scheduled completion. Katrina is estimated to have caused more than $80 billion in damage, and about a third of the city’s residents never moved back after the storm. In New Orleans this morning, the unclaimed bodies of seven Katrina victims were entombed during a memorial service. Other memorial services to mark the third anniversary of the killer hurricane were canceled because of preparations for Gustav. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin said earlier today that while an evacuation order for the city is likely, it won’t happen before tomorrow. Evacuations for areas farther south could begin today, and the state has already begun to relocate 9,000 prison inmates from the threatened area.