Four Feet High
The ‘What Ifs’ Of Hurricane Fiona
By Chris Oakley
(Adapted from material originally posted at the Alternatehistory.com message boards)
Summary: In the first four parts of this series, we recapped the actual sequence of events regarding Hurricane Fiona, then sketched out possible alternative scenarios for how things might have been different if A)Evan Hidalgo had managed to avoid the video scandal that ultimately wrecked his political career; B) the hurricane had made landfall in southern Florida as it had originally been predicted to do; C)the Galveston fire and police departments had had better communications equipment at the time Fiona struck; or D)Haiti hadn’t been hit by the storm. In this chapter we’ll speculate on how New Orleans might have reacted had it been threatened by Fiona’s wrath.
In the four-plus decades since their city was torn apart by Hurricane Katrina, the residents of New Orleans have learned a great deal about being prepared for the worst. Their lessons have been reinforced by Hurricane Odetta, which devastated much of the southern United States in late August of 2017 but was especially harsh on the Crescent City. One of the most important of these lessons was: have as many buses as you can get your hands on ready to evacuate people when you know for sure a hurricane’s coming. Lack of adequate transport doomed thousands of people to death during Katrina; that this catastrophic fiasco wasn’t repeated when Odetta hit was thanks largely in part to the foresight of a new emergency management administration put in place after 2010.
Stuart Draper, former mayor of Houston and now chairman of the Texas state chapter of the National Hurricane Survivors’ Foundation, understands these lessons in a way few other people can. He was in his second year of college at Tulane when Katrina hit, and he was on vacation with friends in Missisippi at the time Odetta made landfall; later, as mayor of Houston, he raced against the clock to brace that city for Fiona’s assault. So when called on to answer the question of whether New Orleans could have coped with Hurricane Fiona, he speaks with considerable authority.
"The going might have been rough for them," says Draper in the study of his suburban Houston home, "but I think they could have handled it. I know a lot of the people who were on New Orleans’ emergency management staff when Hurricane Fiona came to the US, and I can tell you that if worst had come to worst they would’ve done a mighty good job in getting people out before the storm and cleaning up after it."
And he may have a point there; a 2015 survey of the 25 best storm-ready coastal cities around the world ranked New Orleans second in the United States and sixth overall among urban areas best-equipped to handle hurricanes or tropical storms. Much of the bureaucracy that hampered post-Katrina recovery efforts at the local level there has been streamlined and the city’s office of emergency services maintains a fleet of evacuation vehicles ready to take residents out of the city at a moment’s notice in the event of a storm or other natural disaster.
Furthermore, the Pontchatrain Storm Tracking Center at Tulane University has a 24-hour hotline to all the relevant state, local, and federal emergency officers; if a hurricane shows the slightest sign of bearing down on New Orleans, that hotline rings at once to signal the city’s residence to brace themselves for the worst.
Whether New Orleans as a whole could have weathered Hurricane Fiona may be debatable, but one thing is clear beyond a doubt, its erstwhile most famous landmark, the Louisiana Superdome, probably would have been among the casualties. It took heavy structural damage during Hurricane Katrina; Hurricane Odetta inflicted new wounds and reopened old ones; and back-to-back tropical storms in the early 2020s further weakened its integrity.
The city administration that was in office at the time Fiona hit the continental US had already taken the decision long ago not to use the antiquated sports arena as a storm shelter-- and as far as Tulane University architecture professor Andrew Brinker is concerned, it was probably one of the smarter decisions of the mayor’s tenure. "Putting residents in there would have been handing them a death sentence." he declares, using a computer simulation of Fiona hitting downtown New Orleans to underscore his point. "If you ask me, it’s a miracle the place didn’t collapse during Hurricane Odetta."
Asked if he thinks the rest of the city could have withstood Fiona’s wrath, Professor Brinker hedges his bets: "Maybe, maybe not. A lot of the post-2020 buildings in this city are made to withstand storms up to and including a Category 5 hurricane. Some of the older buildings, on the other hand, might have been severely damaged or even destroyed. If you extrapolate from what we know about the damage Fiona inflicted on Houston and Galveston, we can make an educated guess that at least 30-40% of downtown New Orleans would have been devastated by that storm. Suffice to say it’s a good thing that the flood control levees in front of Lake Pontchatrain were overhauled after Katrina, or else Fiona could have turned the city into hell on earth had it hit us."
Given how storms have affected New Orleans in the past, one can’t dismiss this as an exaggeration; even today, its residents still feel vulnerable to the ravages of nature. But maybe thanks to the lessons taught by storms like Fiona, Odetta, and Katrina, human ingenuity can do something to make them feel a bit less vulnerable...
Now let’s permit our imaginations to drift for just a minute or
The date: June 20th, 2028. The staff at the Pontchatrain Storm Tracking Center is following Hurricane Fiona’s course through the Caribbean; the storm has just torn through Haiti and is making a beeline for the eastern tip of Cuba, and from there computer projections as well as the staff’s own instincts suggest that once it leaves Cuba it will either head due north into the tip of Florida or turn northwest towards the Gulf coast of Texas. Just the same, New Orleans mayor Edward Richmond has put the word out to local agencies and to his constituents to be ready for an evacuation should the need arise.
His caution proves well-justified: that evening, the National Weather Service office in Miami issues a bulletin stating Fiona has not only increased in both speed and strength but has also made a dramatic course shift that should have it at Lake Pontchatrain sometime within the next 12-15 hours. New Orleans’ emergency services personnel quickly spring into action, directing people to waiting evacuation buses; those unable to leave on their own for medical reasons are placed aboard medevac flights. Inmates at the city jail, meanwhile, are relocated to the Angola State Penitentiary until the hurricane blows over.
As Fiona draws closer to New Orleans, the flood control gates at Lake Pontchatrain’s levees slam shut while the Louisiana State Police and National Guard move in to aid local cops in completing the evacuation. By the time the hurricane makes landfall just before lunchtime the next day, the city is eventually deserted; many of the city’s older buildings are severely battered, and the Louisiana Superdome collapses before Fiona’s rampage is over, but thankfully most of New Orleans passes through the storm with only minor damage. After the hurricane has gone, and the city’s residents start coming back to clean up the wreckage and resume their lives, they count themselves highly fortunate that the death toll isn’t in the thousands like it was with Katrina nearly a quarter-century ago....
In the next and final part of this series, we’ll explore perhaps the most poignant "what if" question of them all: what if Hurricane Fiona had never happened at all.
To Be Continued...