MIAMI – Hurricane Katrina poses the deadliest of threats to New Orleans and the rest of southern Louisiana: a howling double whammy of wind and water that not even the strongest of building codes could safeguard against, experts say.

Take historically weak Louisiana building codes and questionable enforcement. Add a housing stock that is virtually all wood-framed, and often aged and dilapidated. Stir in the fact that many structures have been weakened by a relentless exotic termite infestation.

Then top it off with a predicted 28-foot storm surge that could overwhelm levees and pumps that keep the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain out of bowl-shaped New Orleans.

What you have is a recipe for a disaster so ruinous it could overshadow the catastrophic damage Hurricane Andrew wrought in southern Miami-Dade County in 1992.

“New Orleans is never going to be the same,” National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield told The Miami Herald.

A model run by Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center predicts 200,000 structures could be severely damaged or destroyed in a direct hit by the Category 5 Katrina, with 200,000 suffering lesser damage. And those would be just the effects of Katrina’s 165-mph winds.

“The wind is the least of their problems, even though they’re looking at Andrew-type damage,” said Marc Levitan, director of the LSU hurricane center, by phone from an emergency operations center where he was helping with storm preparedness. “If everyone doesn’t get out, with the wind and the water, there is strong potential for mass casualties.”

If anything, the New Orleans area is even less prepared for Katrina than South Florida was for Andrew – the last Category 5 storm to strike the United States, and only one of three to have made landfall on U.S. soil since records were kept. Andrew’s 165-mph winds leveled much of South Miami-Dade, causing $31 billion in damage.

At the time, Miami-Dade boasted the strongest hurricane building code in the country, but it proved inadequate for Andrew’s power. In many places, lax inspections had overlooked glaring building defects which caused many homes, in particular relatively new ones in large subdivisions, to come apart under the assault of wind.

But many homes in the New Orleans area, maybe even a majority, can’t even match that dubious degree of quality, experts say.

“They are in worse shape than we were,” said veteran structural engineer Eugenio Santiago, who worked with The Herald after Andrew to uncover building defects that caused homes to fail, and recently attended a national hurricane conference in New Orleans. “There are a lot of old wood-frame houses there. No matter what code they have, anything over 85 miles-an-hour is going to take a lot of them out.”

The prevalent hurricane code in Lousiana has been what engineers consider the bare minimum – that buildings be designed to withstand 100-mph winds.

In January 2004, the Lousiana legislature approved a higher standard comparable to post-Andrew codes in Miami-Dade and Broward counties – the highest in Florida – that buildings stand up to gusts of 146 mph.

But the legislature didn’t require localities to adopt the new standard. New Orleans and Baton Rouge did, but many local communities have codes that haven’t been updated in 10 or 15 years, LSU’s Levitan said. Enforcement, too, has been spotty, especially in rural areas, he said.

And, he added, the local building industry seems reluctant to adopt hurricane-resistant windows or shutters.

In any case, New Orleans has seen little new development since adopting the new codes, meaning that most of its structures at best meet the inadequate old standard – certainly no match for Katrina. And many of those are aging or have been damaged by a Formosan termite infestation.

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“There’s a lot of older homes, most of these homes are below sea level, most of these homes are termite ridden,” said Capt. Lou Robinson, a training instructor with the City of New Orleans Fire Department. “The newer homes, construction-wise, they just meet minimum requirements. You know, just for cost effectiveness, they scrimp. The roofs are manufactured with trusses or lightweight metal but they just don’t hold up under extreme conditions.”

Worst-case scenario? The city could lose half its homes, Robinson said.

Robinson said he doesn’t expect to have a home after the storm passes. He built his home in 2000 himself to the strongest codes, but it’s outside of the levee system.

“It’s just not going to handle this level of wind and water,” he said.

Ironically, Levitan noted, a new state task force was supposed to meet for the first time this week to begin developing recommendations for strengthening Louisiana’s building codes and practices.

“Our thought was we could be proactive and not have to wait until after we got smacked,” Levitan said. “I guess that’s not going to happen.”



(c) 2005, The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-28-05 2107EDT


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