-- 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.
"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.
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."
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.