New Orleans again stands on the edge of environmental apocalypse.
The city hammered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is now threatened by a new storm gathering strength in the Gulf of Mexico. Thunderstorms Wednesday brought massive flooding to the low-lying city, including the French Quarter, which escaped Katrina's flooding.
The tropical storm that will be called Barry is expected to develop into a weak hurricane by the weekend. Hurricane warnings have been issued for the entire Gulf Coast. Barry's threat comes early in the hurricane season. There have only been three July hurricanes historically, all in the last 40 years, according to media reports.
The arrival of Barry comes as the Mississippi River stands at unusually high levels for this time of year. Heavy spring rainfall has raised the river's level to 16 feet at the Carrollton Avenue gauge, according to media reports.
Barry, if hits Louisiana, could bring up to 18 inches of rainfall, swelling the New Orleans river level to 20 feet or more, according to reports. That will put severe pressure on the levees that protect the city, as reported in a New Republic article.
A Corps of Engineers official expressed confidcnce that New Orleans' levees would hold, according to a wire story. But The Times-Picayune Advocate reported that water might overlap levees in the city's lower Ninth Ward, Algiers and St. Bernard Parish.
The threat from Barry comes after an environmentally ominous spring in which Mississippi River towns farther north suffered catastrophic flooding. The turgid Mississippi brought an increase of pollution washing downriver, threatening Louisiana's fisheries, as detailed in a Huffiington Post article.
The opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway an unprecedented two times caused a heavy infusion of fresh water pouring into Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico.
The nutrient-rich chemical, hazardous and human waste carried by the heavy volume of river water led to a profusion of algae in the gulf, forcing the closure of Mississippi beaches. Scientists are also reporting an ominous rise in dolphin deaths, and an expected widening of the dead zone that develops each summer in the gulf.
With Barry gaining strength in the gulf, officials in Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans have ordered a mandatory evacuation, while New Orleans officials are waiting to see what happens.
The evacuation of Plaquemines brought to mind a notorious historical catastrophe. As the momentous 1927 Mississippi River flood rushed toward the gulf, the levees were dynamited south of New Orleans to ease pressure on the city, as memorably recounted in John M. Barry's definitive book on the flood.
While New Orleans was spared, Plaquemines suffered devastating flooding. The memory of that event, evoked in Randy Newman's anthem "Louisiana 1927," persisted in rumors during Hurricane Katrina that the federal government intentionally blew up the levees around New Orleans so that poor people's neighborhoods would be destroyed to save rich white homes.But affluent Lakeshore neighborhoods also were inundated.
Plaquemines, one of the south Louisiana parishes losing land to the Gulf of Mexico at alarming rates, now hopes to avoid an echo of the 1927 debacle. And New Orleans prays it won't suffer a catastrophe like Katrina.
But even if New Orleans avoids devastation, the long-term threats of climate change and human pollution remain. Extreme weather will become a normal event.