What If Another Hurricane Hits New Orleans?

With people moving back to New Orleans, and engineers struggling to repair damaged dikes, emergency planners are considering a nightmare scenario: another hurricane hitting the area.

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The National Hurricane Center has upgraded tropical storm Rita to a Category 1 hurricane. The storm is approaching the Florida Keys. It's expected to pick up strength as it moves over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Rita prompted New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to halt his plan to repopulate some parts of his city. The mayor ordered everybody to leave, just as they did for Hurricane Katrina.

US military personnel in the region are preparing for the next storm, even as they work on the Katrina recovery. Lieutenant General Russel Honore commands military forces involved in that recovery.

Lieutenant General RUSSEL HONORE: Our concern is that Rita will make up its mind and not necessarily follow the chart that the weatherman's giving you. He is taking the best guess, based on good science. But it is plausible that that storm still could come to New Orleans and, as you know, that area's still pretty fragile. The levees have been severely stressed. The pumps have been stressed. So if we were to get five or six inches of rain, if this became a rain event for New Orleans, it would be significant.

INSKEEP: Lieutenant General Russel Honore spoke this morning from his headquarters at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. The general's concern is shared by other emergency planners. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on the odds of a second storm striking New Orleans.

JON HAMILTON reporting:

Hurricanes are like lightning. They can and sometimes do strike the same place twice. So federal officials are already worrying about a storm named Rita. At the moment, it's heading west from the Bahamas toward the Gulf of Mexico. Colonel Richard Wagenaar with the Army Corps of Engineers says he's concerned about two possibilities. The first is that Rita could veer north and deliver another direct hit to New Orleans, but Wagenaar says he's also concerned that Rita might simply get close enough to drop several inches of rain.

Colonel RICHARD WAGENAAR (Army Corps of Engineers): The first one is obvious: storm surge, wind, typical hurricane damage. The second one is a concern because of the amount of rainfall on the city, and the status of the pumps to be able to get the water out of the city is still limited at the present time.

HAMILTON: It wouldn't be the first time a place has been struck by two hurricanes in a short period of time. Last September, a Category 3 hurricane named Ivan battered the coastline near the border between Alabama and Florida. That storm closed Highway 399 near Pensacola. 399 reopened in July of this year for about a week. That's when Hurricane Dennis arrived and destroyed the repairs. David Nolan, a meteorologist at the University of Miami, says the story of Highway 399 should remind people in New Orleans of something that's pretty obvious.

Mr. DAVID NOLAN (Meteorologist, University of Miami): The chances of New Orleans getting hit by a hurricane, say, in the next few weeks are really not very much different than they were for the previous few weeks.

HAMILTON: Nolan says that's partly because the Gulf of Mexico serves as a sort of crossroads for hurricanes.

Mr. NOLAN: As the season goes on, the hurricanes change from a track which is mainly from the east towards the west and then changing to one which is essentially from the south to the north. Unfortunately for the Gulf, it is vulnerable to storms moving both directions.

HAMILTON: The news isn't all gloomy. Nolan says Katrina was so powerful it actually changed some of the conditions that allowed it to become so destructive.

Mr. NOLAN: Before Katrina, sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico were quite warm. After Katrina, the temperatures are definitely lower. The wind blowing across the ocean mixes up colder water from below.

HAMILTON: For a hurricane, warm water is like fuel. When water temperatures drop, so does a hurricane's potential strength. Chris Landsea is with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. He sees another factor that should work in New Orleans' favor. Landsea says that as the hurricane season progresses, the greatest risk tends to shift from the Gulf to the East Coast.

Mr. CHRIS LANDSEA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration): For example, one of the biggest impacts for the Carolinas was Hurricane Hazel that occurred in October. Likewise, October, we see them in the Florida peninsula, whereas the western Gulf, say, Texas and Louisiana, by the time you get to October, their threat is much diminished.

HAMILTON: Landsea says it will be several weeks, though, before people in New Orleans can let down their guard.

Mr. LANDSEA: I hope we don't have any more major hurricanes, but, you know, given that we're in kind of mid-to-late September, and the active portion of the season tends to last to the middle or late October, it wouldn't surprise me if we saw another major hurricane or two before the season's over.

HAMILTON: There have been 17 named storms in the Atlantic this season, including Rita. There are just four names left: Stan, Tammy, Vince and Wilma. After that, storms get Greek letters starting with Alpha, Beta and Gamma.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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