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April 11-18, 2007

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post-Katrina New Orleans

Vieux Carre: While many neighborhoods struggle to rebuild in post-Katrina New Orleans, tourist attractions such as the high-grounded French Quarter endured minimal storm damage.

Will the next hurricane be worse?

UCSC alumnus, hurricane evacuee discusses relief, recovery and his idea for preventing a repeat in post-Katrina New Orleans

By Leah Bartos

While Santa Cruz residents prepare for this month's Earth Day celebration, the city of New Orleans is gearing up for another hurricane season--one which many scientists have theorized will continue to intensify in the near future.

Though organizations such as the Pew Center on Global Climate Change have yet to draw definitive correlations between global warming and Hurricane Katrina in particular, the group released a report stating, "A reasonable assessment of the science suggests that we will face similar events again and that powerful storms are likely to happen more often than we have been accustomed to in the past."

With dire predictions such as these, some in the scientific community are left wondering if simply building stronger levees will be enough.

Stephen Winters-Hilt, who earned a computer science Ph.D. from UC-Santa Cruz in 2003, is among those who attribute the changes to global warming. He concedes that building stronger levees may be one tool in fighting off increasingly powerful hurricanes, but he warns that other, less desirable measures may be necessary as well.

"They can build those levees up, but they have to have a plan about how to contend with the surge over the levees," says Winters-Hilt, a computer science professor at the University of New Orleans and bioinformatics researcher at the Research Institute for Children's Diseases. "We have politics interfering with the recovery process. Basically, some people in the city need to be told, 'Your neighborhood is never coming back because we're going to cut out a huge canal through here so when there's a surge, [the water] will direct down this canal to a pump station to pump it out.'

"If there's another significant melt-off in Antarctica, we might see 10 to 12 feet more in our sea level. It won't just be a problem for New Orleans," Winters-Hilt continued, "but it will probably be more of a problem for New Orleans than most places because we're already below sea level."

Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, killing more than 1,600 people and displacing about 1 million. The storm destroyed 200,000 homes across the Gulf and left 80 percent of New Orleans underwater. Nineteen months later, the Gulf Coast is still reeling from the damage.

Following the storm, Winters-Hilt evacuated four graduate students and one undergraduate to UCSC. Winters-Hilt said that UCSC, his former home, provided an obvious option for relocating members of his research team.

"A third of my group went to Santa Cruz, the third that was devastated, with houses and possessions totally gone," Winters-Hilt says.

Among the evacuees who resided in Stevenson College for the fall quarter of 2005 was Iftekhar Amin, who fondly recalls his time in Santa Cruz in comparison to the chaos following the hurricane.

"There were at least three oil spills and two chemical plants that caught fire," Amin says. "That's not a good time to stay in the city because the water and the air were both really bad and there were a lot of diseases ... I was glad to go to a nice place like Santa Cruz."

By January 2006, Amin and the others had returned to New Orleans, where the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was perhaps less immediate, but still present in everyday life, as it continues to be today. And although the city has taken great steps toward recovery, many climatologists, such as those at the Pew Research Center, predict hurricanes will only worsen.

Yet implementing comprehensive preventative measures can often be tricky, says Winters-Hilt, in a situation like Katrina where ugly truths about an unresolved racial history have coalesced with the potential for continued environmental disaster.

"Politically, they could not say that [we need canals]," Winters-Hilt says. "The people that need to say that happened to be running for office at the time. And so, they're not going to have any kind of public works like that. . . . It looks like it's going to take another big flood before they have the chance to do it right."

Winters-Hilt says that because such neighborhoods are disproportionately African-American and low-income, this type of discussion is "a political no-man's land."

"Lower income basically means that you're in a less-favorable spot, and a less-favorable spot is probably one that is 17 feet below sea level versus one that is a good two feet above sea level. [At] two feet above sea level, you're getting into some big money," he says.

However, Winters-Hilt points out that some more affluent areas, such as the Gentilly neighborhood near the University of New Orleans, also suffered a great deal of devastation.

"It destroyed everybody," he says. "But the deepest part of the city coincided with the poorest neighborhoods there. I think they should be able to preserve these neighborhoods so that these communities can be retained."

Though the idea may be unpopular, Winters-Hilt suggests that building a canal through these low-lying neighborhoods, rather than trying to fight growing storm surges with higher levees, may actually be the key to their preservation.

"But I've heard of no one speaking of this. This is just my own crazy idea," he laughs.

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