On a seaplane tour of the region Tuesday, Gerald M. Duszynski, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, pointed out an area near the tiny bayou town of Leesville, where he fished for redfish and flounder 25 years ago. Once a solid patch of green tidal marsh, it is now mostly open water, with a few strips and splotches of green.
"This used to be perfect, and now look at it," Duszynski said. "The buffer is gone. Now even the little storms give a big influx."
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.
Louisiana's politicians, environmentalists and business leaders have been pushing for a $14 billion coastal restoration project to try to bring back those lost marshes and islands -- in order to help protect New Orleans as well as an oil and gas industry that handles nearly a third of the nation's supply.
The Bush administration forced the state to scale down its request to $1.2 billion last year, and a Senate committee authorized $375 million. But Mark Davis, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, believes that even if Ivan bypasses the region, its scary approach could help galvanize support for a more comprehensive fix.
"We're running out of tomorrows," Davis said. "God willing, if there's still a southern Louisiana next week, I'm not talking about the politics of the possible anymore. It's now a question of which side are you on: Do you support the obliteration of a region, or do you want to try to save it?"
On Tuesday, though, most local officials were thinking more about the potential danger than the potential opportunity. If Ivan does pound New Orleans, tidal surges could leave the city underwater for months, since its pumps can remove only about an inch every hour, creating a "toxic soup" of chemicals, rodents, poisons and snakes.
The local officials said they could not order a mandatory evacuation in a city as poor as New Orleans, in which more than 100,000 residents have no cars, but they urged people to find some way to escape. "If you want to take a chance, buy a lottery ticket," said Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard. "Don't take a chance on this hurricane."
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin seemed flustered as he pleaded with his constituents to flee, at one point suggesting that they take shelter in area hospitals. Visitors were also urged to find somewhere else to go -- including 10,000 conventioneers in town for the annual meeting of the National Safety Council.
"This is not a drill," Nagin said. "This is the real deal."
But the logistics of exit are quite formidable in the Big Easy. In 1998, as more than 300,000 people fled Hurricane Georges, Interstate 10 turned into a parking lot. Similar miles-long snarls unfolded Tuesday. Flights were cancelled and the airport prepared to close. The town that gave the world "A Streetcar Named Desire" idled its streetcars.
The underlying problem, Maestri said, is that the city never should have been built in the first place. It is a terrific location for business but a lousy location for safety.
"The Chamber of Commerce gets really mad at me when I say this, but does New Orleans get rebuilt?" Maestri asked. The answer, he said, could very well be no.
Staff writer Manny Fernandez in Apalachicola, Fla., contributed to this report.