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Recent tropical cyclone-induced floods in the United States, and elsewhere, have demonstrated the complexity of public health impacts including trauma; fires; and chemical, sewerage, and corpse contamination of air and water. Disease risk in Louisiana during hurricanes/major floods is very high reflecting forty percent of the state is coastal zone in which seventy percent of the population resides. Ninety percent of this zone is near/below sea level. Densely populated areas, such as New Orleans, rank among the highest in the United States with respect to potential societal, mortality, and economic impacts.

Louisiana's outer buffers to storm surges are its coastal wetlands and barrier islands. Since 1930, one million acres have been lost, 400,000 acres seawards of New Orleans. In 1990 the State and Federal Governments initiated a coastal restoration program with total expenditures to date of 400 million. However, even with these efforts land loss will exceed 28,000 acres p.a.

The City of New Orleans was built on wetlands. Leveeing and draining has resulted in substantial subsidence such that most of New Orleans is now below sea level, with a maximum deflation of 13 feet. Within this bowl reside 500,000 people. The West Bank, south of New Orleans and across the Mississippi River, also has a population of 500,000 who also live within levee protected bowls. Recent research reveals that a slow moving Category 3 hurricane, or stronger, could cause levee overtopping and complete flooding of New Orleans, with the West Bank even more susceptible. Floodwaters would have residence times of weeks. The resultant mix of sewage, corpses and chemicals in these standing flood waters would set the stage for massive disease outbreaks and prolonged chemical exposure. Estimates are that 300,000 persons would be trapped and 700,000 would be homeless; thousands would perish.

There is a need to develop and implement a long-term coastal restoration plan to ensure New Orleans survival. A project that appears to have the greatest potential of reducing hurricane storm surges impacting New Orleans requires the diversion of the Mississippi River into Breton and Chandeleur Sounds through the Bohemia Wildlife Management area (van Heerden, 1994). If enacted, approximately 5,000 acres of new wetland would be created in this stable basin every year. Large-scale coastal restoration efforts will positively affect New Orleans future.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2004-01-01

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