As I write this, Hurricane Katrina is climbing up the Gulf toward the mouth of the Mississippi and the City of New Orleans. The winds have slowed from 175 miles per hour to about 160, but the warm Gulf water could drive it faster at any time.
If you’ve ever stuck your hand out the window of your car at 55 miles per hour, you know how much force that is. Katrina’s cyclone winds are three times as fast, which means they push nine times as hard as the air on your hand. There’s not much that can take that and keep standing. Even fewer things can take the pounding force of debris carried on that terrible wind.
And then there’s the sea.
Of all the people ever killed by hurricanes, nine tenths of them died not from the wind but from the storm surge. A hurricane is driven by a slight reduction in pressure at its center. While the weight of the surrounding air presses down on the sea with full force, the sea under the hurricane lifts up slightly.
Even worse, the continuous winds slowly build a giant wave. In some sense, it’s really not that big. Hurricane Katrina is a million feet wide, but its storm surge is only going to be about 20 feet. If it were a normal wave, it would crash against the land and be done. But it’s not. It may only be 20 feet high, but it stretches for miles and miles.
If Katrina hits New Orleans dead on, the storm surge will arrive in the form of wind-swept waves that crash on the shore again and again, retreating a little less each time. In just minutes, the waves will over-top the 14-foot levees surrounding the city. Then the sea will rise up and pour into the valley where New Orleans lies.
I’ve only ever been to New Orleans once, and then only for a few days. I was in a hotel located on the edge of the the French Quarter.
Have you ever been to Disney World? Running down the center of the Magic Kingdom is Old Main Street, Disney’s idea of an old-time small town. The main street in the French Quarter, Bourbon Street, is just like Disney’s Old Main Street, except with jazz bars and strip clubs. It’s ancient and decadent and a lot of fun. It’s what Old Main Street would like to be…if it weren’t for all those damned kids.
I don’t actually remember much. I remember all the spinning fans on the ceiling of the Old Absinthe House. I haven’t seen it in 20 years, but I’ll bet it hasn’t changed a bit. It’s been there for 200 years, why would they have made any recent changes?
I remember Jackson Square. As I recall, the pigeons there were really fat, no doubt stuffing themselves with scraps left behind by visitors to the surrounding bakeries and restaurants.
Then there’s Antoine’s Restaurant. Probably their most famous dish is Oysters Rockefeller. It’s the original, you know. The recipe is a secret. Every other Oysters Rockefeller you’ve ever had is just a cheap imitation. Or so I’m told. I didn’t get around to visiting Antoine’s back then.
I’m a northerner, a Midwesterner. I was born in Chicago, and I have every intention of staying here all my life. My visit to New Orleans was brief and long ago. Not much happened to me there. I’m not a party animal, so I didn’t do any legendary amounts of drinking. I didn’t meet a girl and have a fling I’ll always remember. I didn’t have any mystical epiphany in one of the all-night jazz clubs.
Truth is, I really only ever saw the tourist areas, and not much of those. If Katrina does her worst, there are a lot more important things that will be lost. Lives will be lost, possibly a lot of them. I am frightened for the people who remain behind, and I wish them all the best in their struggle to come.
I was comfortable there, just strolling through the Quarter. There’s been a little bit of New Orleans in my heart ever since. I always planned to go back and see the rest of it. I always figured it would be there.
When Monday morning comes, I guess I’ll know.
Note added June 2006: I’m rather proud of this piece and the way it captured my thoughts at the time. I wrote it quickly, but it holds up pretty well. Because I’ve just added it to my “Best Of” list, I figured I should add a few notes on how things turned out.
My last line was off by a day. The leading edge of the hurricane made landfall on Monday morning, but it was a big storm. It wasn’t until Tuesday morning that we started getting good reports on the extent of the damage.
Although Katrina lost strength and didn’t strike New Orleans directly, it was still more than the levies and flood walls could stand. They failed in dozens of places for reasons that remain confusing and controversial.