SPECIAL REPORT: Gulf Coast braces for ‘Ivan the Terrible’

| 9/15/2004

The U.S. Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, prepared Wednesday, Sept. 15, for a direct hit from Hurricane Ivan, considered by forecasters to be the most powerful storm to hit the region in decades.

If trucks can avoid the area, they are encouraged to do so. The winds will be powerful enough to lift tractor-trailers. After the storm loses some strength its winds will remain powerful enough to easily tip rigs onto their sides. In addition, on most major highways that connect to the New Orleans, Mobile, AL, and other coastal areas, all lanes have been turned over to outgoing traffic. Media reports indicated that all lanes of Interstate 10 - eastbound and westbound - were jammed with vehicles full of evacuees.

Early Wednesday, Ivan was 180 miles south-southeast of the Mississippi River Delta on Louisiana's southern edge. The Delta is directly south of New Orleans and its 1.2 million residents, most of whom were either fleeing or preparing to leave.

Despite any uncertainties in forecaster's predictions, landfall was nearly certain to occur in the 200-mile-wide region from Pensacola, FL, to New Orleans.

On radar the storm appeared to be heading north-northwest - a direct course for the Big Easy. However, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center were predicting landfall near the Alabama-Mississippi border, and The Weather Channel forecast that it would hit roughly at Mobile, AL, a major center of trucking activity and home to a large port operation.

The Weather Channel reported early Wednesday afternoon that monitoring equipment about 70 miles south of Dauphin Island, AL, was already reporting 70 mph winds - just below hurricane force. The island sites at the mouth of Mobile Bay.

A hurricane warning - meaning hurricane conditions were likely in the next 24 hours - was issued for the whole region. The storm was moving toward the coast at 14 mph Wednesday afternoon.

Ivan's hurricane-force winds covered an area 210 miles wide, with a foot of rainfall and storm surges predicted over 10 feet, with some waves even higher than that. The storm was still a category 4 storm, carrying 135 mph sustained winds and more powerful gusts. It was expected to remain at hurricane force even after it travels up to 150 miles inland.

The storm could be particularly hard on larger cities. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said that the winds near the top of a 30-story building would be a step higher on the hurricane scale than winds at ground level. That means even if Ivan slows to a category 3 storm, taller buildings in downtown New Orleans could be hit with full category 4 strength winds.

Oil market could be affected
The storm could have a significant effect on the oil market in the United States - including the price of diesel.

Several oil companies removed thousands of workers from offshore platforms and shut down some refineries and rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. For example, Louisiana-based Chalmette Refining and Murphy Refiners said Sept. 15 they would close for safety reasons, according to The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

And that's not all. The federal government's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the world's largest supply of emergency crude oil, is located in underground salt caverns along the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico - the spot tropical storm Ivan appeared to eye as it approached the shoreline.

According to The Strategic Petroleum Reserve Web site, "The Gulf of Mexico was a logical choice for oil storage sites. More than 500 salt domes are concentrated along the coast. It is the location of many U.S. refineries and distribution points for tankers, barges and pipelines."

However, officials didn't consider a storm of mass destruction, such as Ivan, which Sept. 15 threatened to close refineries, tanker operations, barges and pipelines. This in turn could stall trucking operations, hitting owner-operators particularly hard, as the ripple effect threatens businesses and renders any OPEC decision on fuel supplies meaningless.

Nevertheless, OPEC on Sept. 15 in Vienna, Austria, said it would increase its oil production by 1 million barrels a day later this year in a move widely viewed as more symbolic than significant, Reuters reported.

Kuwaiti Oil Minister Sheik Ahmad Fahad al-Ahmad al-Sabah said the cartel agreed to the decision to raise output by nearly 4 percent, adding it would take effect Nov. 1. "We will give a signal to the market that we are working hard for the stability of the market," he said.

The Big Uneasy
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who earlier asked residents to begin evacuating, said at an evening press conference Tuesday, Sept. 14, that the window to evacuate the city was quickly closing.

Depending on the whim of the wind, Ivan could send water pouring over the New Orleans levees, sending floodwaters as high as rooftops and turning streets into a "toxic mixing bowl of raw sewage, gas and chemicals from nearby refineries," The Associated Press reported.

Much of New Orleans lies up to 10 feet below sea level. Some reports indicated that officials expected up to 20 feet of water to inundate the city, with that floodwater tainted not only with pollutants, but also dangerous snakes and insects carried by the flood from nearby bayous.

Many evacuees were seen on CNN, stalled and unable to leave the city as other complications came to light.

"We (also) have about 1,000 residents who depend on public transportation to get around," said Nagin, speaking to CNN. "For them, the only option is a 'vertical' escape by seeking refuge in high-rise apartments."

Nagin said that the New Orleans Police Department, Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services will continue to provide services to the city during the storm, but that all other city services have been suspended.

The Red Cross reported that the coastal areas of Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parish, LA, both east of New Orleans in low-lying coastal areas, were also being evacuated. The emergency relief organization is opening shelters in locations safe enough to survive the storm's wrath and away from any potential flooding that may occur.

"We've already opened five shelters for people who have begun voluntary evacuations of New Orleans and the surrounding areas of Jefferson and Orleans parishes," Red Cross spokeswoman Margaret O'Brien-Molina said in a release. "People are being directed to three information points in the state, where they can check in and be sent to available shelters."

Alabama, Mississippi in the crosshairs, too
Evacuations were not limited to Louisiana. Officials said coastal communities in Mississippi and Alabama were also issuing evacuation orders.

The U.S. Coast Guard shut several ports in the Gulf of Mexico coast states of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi as Ivan approached. President Bush met with governors of those states to ensure federal help and discuss the danger.

The Coast Guard Captain of the Port for Mobile, AL, near Ivan's expected shore debut said the port of Mobile, and the ports of Panama City and Pensacola FL, along with the Mississippi ports of Gulfport and Pascagoula are closed.

On Interstate 65 in Alabama, officials turned the highway into a northbound-only evacuation route. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley urged all citizens to "cooperate for one day" and help each other evacuate to points north.

Even federal officials were making preparations. U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-MS, left Washington, DC, to move his 91-year-old grandmother from a nursing home and to board up his home.

- By Mark H. Reddig and Dick Larsen, Land Line staff