NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 14 -- Walter Maestri, an emergency manager here in America's most vulnerable metropolitan area, has 10,000 body bags ready in case a major hurricane ever hits New Orleans. As Hurricane Ivan's expected path shifted uncomfortably close to this low-lying urban soup bowl Tuesday, Maestri said he might need a lot more.
If a strong Category 4 storm such as Ivan made a direct hit, he warned, 50,000 people could drown, and this city of Mardi Gras and jazz could cease to exist.
Daniel LeDocte boards up his French Quarter building in preparation for the possible arrival of Hurricane Ivan. Officials urged New Orleans residents to leave the city but acknowledged that thousands may not be able to do so.
(Bill Haber -- AP)
Photo Gallery: Hurricane Ivan approaches Alabama's Gulf Coast Wednesday.
"This could be The One," Maestri said in an interview in his underground bunker. "You're talking about the potential loss of a major metropolitan area."
Forecasters said Tuesday night that they expected Ivan to veer at least 70 miles east of New Orleans before making landfall early Thursday, somewhere along the Gulf Coast extremities of Louisiana, Alabama or Mississippi. But Ivan has consistently drifted farther west than their predictions. This port city's levees are designed to withstand only a Category 3 storm, and officials begged residents to evacuate the area "if you have the means."
By evening, the city's few escape routes were spectacularly clogged, and authorities acknowledged that hundreds of thousands of residents would not get out in time. The stranded will not be able to turn to the Red Cross, because New Orleans is the only city in which the relief agency refuses to set up emergency storm shelters, to ensure the safety of its own staff. Even if a 30-foot-high wall of water crashes through the French Quarter -- Maestri's worst-case scenario -- stranded residents will be on their own.
New Orleans is often described as a disaster waiting to happen -- it is mostly below sea level, practically surrounded by water, artificially kept dry by pumps and levees, rapidly losing its natural storm protection. But rarely have its leaders sounded so afraid that the wait could be over soon.
"I'm terrified," said Windell Curole, director of the South Lafourche Levee District in the swampy bayous south of the city. "I'm telling you, we've got no elevation. This isn't hyperbole. The only place I can compare us to is Bangladesh."
More than 100,000 Bangladeshis died in a 1991 storm, and Curole is genuinely afraid that a similar tragedy could strike New Orleans, most of which sits six to eight feet lower than the surrounding waters of the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico. Ivan is the strongest storm to threaten the region since Hurricane Betsy nailed New Orleans in 1965. It brought more than $7 billion of havoc at a time when southern Louisiana was less populated and less exposed.
The doomsayers are quick to add a caveat: Ivan might not turn out to be The One. The National Hurricane Center expects the storm to swerve toward the area between Gulfport, Miss., and Mobile, Ala. Officials in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle were urging residents Tuesday to leave coastal areas. "I beg people on the coast: Do not ride this storm out," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) said.
A dozen coastal casinos were shuttered in Mississippi, and Barbour's evacuation order for coastal areas was mandatory. In Alabama, Gov. Bob Riley (R) ordered evacuations from Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan, and some towns postponed runoff elections scheduled for Tuesday. Evacuation was mandatory in parts of Escambia, Bay and Walton counties in Florida, and most schools in the Panhandle were closed.
Most scientists, engineers and emergency managers agree that if Ivan does spare southern Louisiana this time, The One is destined to arrive someday. The director of the U.S. Geological Survey has warned that New Orleans is on a path to extinction. Gregory W. Stone, director of the Coastal Studies Institute at Louisiana State University, frets that near misses such as Hurricane Georges -- a Category 2 storm that swerved away from New Orleans a day before landfall in 1998 -- only give residents a false sense of security. The Red Cross has rated a hurricane inundating New Orleans as America's deadliest potential natural disaster -- worse than a California earthquake.
"I don't mean to be an alarmist, but the doomsday scenario is going to happen eventually," Stone said. "I'll stake my professional reputation on it."
The main problem with southern Louisiana is that it is dangerously low, and getting lower. The levees that imprisoned the Mississippi River into its shipping channel and helped make New Orleans one of the world's busiest ports have also prevented the muddy river from spreading sediment around its delta.
As a result, southern Louisiana is sinking into the Gulf, losing about 24 square miles of coastal marshes and barrier islands every year. Those marshes and islands used to help slow storms as they approached New Orleans; computer simulations now predict that the loss of these natural storm barriers will increase storm surges and waves by several feet.