I've been sitting on this MetaFilter post since yesterday: Hurricane Risk for New Orleans. Surely you've noticed even Drudge has gotten whipped into a 10,000 BODYBAGS!! frenzy. As a Louisianian, I appreciate the interest--until it devolves into rubbernecking, or when people start trotting out the same old "It's a corrupt city that will never get its act together," "anyone who lives there is an idiot," let 'em all die BS.
Everything you've heard about New Orleans geography is true. Yes, it's under sea level. It's surrounded by water (the Mississippi, Lake Ponchartrain, various swamps and, not too far off, the actual Gulf of Mexico). It's also shaped like a "bowl" and sinks something like six inches into the mud every year. And should a major hurricane come barreling directly up the river and into the city, all hell would break loose.
Okay, now let me talk you down from the ledge. The center of Hurricane Ivan is projected to strike near Mobile, Alabama. The storm track has never put New Orleans in direct danger of receiving the eye of the storm. It's going to be a mess, but I don't think this is the Storm of the Century that will, in the words of my dad, have people swimming like sewer rats in the French Quarter. The west side of any hurricane is where you want to be. The thunderstorms will be generally be weaker and the SSE winds moves the storm surge out, not in. That said, Ivan has a ginormous eye, and you don't want to be anywhere near the eyewall--that's where all of the heaviest storms, highest winds, and tornadoes are.
So, even though Ivan isn't tracking up the Mississippi, I'm really glad my peeps have made the drive on I-10 home, near Lafayette, where we're in the Tropical Storm Warning area. In fact, I'm kind of jealous. The last time we evacuated together, for Hurricane Andrew (which hit Louisiana after it hit Florida), we stayed up in my Aunt's house eating gumbo and talking all night. Wow. How, like, totally stereotypical of us.
Finally--the MeFi thread also took Louisianians to task for not "demanding" that flood walls and levees be built. Let me tell you a little story about the Army Corps of Engineers. Actually, let this PBS story on The Flood of 1927 and this article from Tulane tell you why the federal government has screwed up our river system and made our flood problems worse by fixing the path of the Mississippi. Added bonus? Widespread coastal erosion. No more free-flowing river = no more delta deposits. This Slate article also mentions some of the Corps' more recent scandales. And regarding floodgates, well, anyone who's seen the New Orleans episode of Insomniac with Dave Attell knows that a very friendly guy named Ellis mans the floodgates--when he's not watching musicals.
Anyway, let's focus on the people in and around Mobile, Alabama, who are going to bear the brunt of Ivan around 1 AM tomorrow morning, not on deciding whether New Orleans "deserves" to survive.
Related: New Orleans Times-Picayune special report, Washing Away and a New York Times story from 2002 (archived at hurricane.lsu.edu)