New Orleans glad hurricane season was weak

/ Source: Reuters

Nearing the end of a hurricane season that left New Orleans untouched, residents are breathing sighs of relief that their city was spared another disaster, even as much of still lies in ruins from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

“All I can say is ’Thank God,”’ said Laura McNeal, 48, a consultant whose house flooded when Katrina burst the levees protecting the historic jazz city in August 2005. “If it had happened again, we probably couldn’t have come back.”

Hurricane season 2006 ends on Nov. 30. And, so far, no hurricane has hit the United States. The quiet year has eased worries in New Orleans, where some damaged neighborhoods remain vacant, businesses are shuttered and thousands of residents have been housed in trailers since Katrina struck.

“We knew if we could just get through this season, things would look much brighter for the future,” said Mary Beth Romig of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Fear of another hurricane hurt the vital tourism industry this year, with the number of visitors down slightly more than half from pre-Katrina levels, she said.

“A lot of what we heard was concern for another hurricane hitting New Orleans,” she said.

Just five Atlantic hurricanes
Defying predictions it would be more active than average, 2006 has brought nine tropical storms in the Atlantic basin, of which five strengthened into hurricanes. Last year saw a record 28 tropical storms and 15 hurricanes, including Katrina and Wilma, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane recorded.

Hurricane specialist Michelle Mainelli at the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said it is largely safe to assume this season will end quietly.

“It looks like the United States and most of the Caribbean escaped a season that could have potential disastrous effects, so we should breathe a sigh of relief,” she said.

Officials in New Orleans said they are pleased they didn’t have to test their beefed-up readiness plans. Katrina left thousands of people stranded for days in sweltering heat.

New Orleans has a new evacuation program, with buses, trains and planes ready, said Jerry Sneed, director of New Orleans’ Office of Emergency Preparedness.

“We had a very, very good plan,” Sneed said. “But we’re very, very glad that we were blessed by not having an active season where we didn’t have to use it at all.”

Since Katrina, residents have prepared themselves, prepacking cars, saving documents and stocking up on everything from extra medicine to extra-large suitcases.

“I learned to evacuate. I’m better prepared, I have a place to go, I have better savings,” said Keonna Thornton, 29, who works at Tee-Eva’s Creole Soul Food shop. “If I can get through Katrina, anything else is like a piece of cake.”

Katrina caused $80 billion in damage and killed 1,500 people on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Repairs continue
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used the storm-free months to improve levees, flood walls and New Orleans’ pumping and drainage capacity, said Lt. Col. Murray Starkel, deputy commander of the Corps’ New Orleans District.

“The predictions at the beginning of the season obviously gave us concern and made us work a lot faster, which is the good side,” Starkel said. “The bad side was that there was that unnecessary fear and anxiety within the local population.”

Engineer Chuck Watson said he was glad he missed the mark when he predicted last spring that New Orleans was the U.S. city most likely to be struck by hurricane-force winds.

“I don’t mind saying that we were wrong this year,” said Watson of Kinetic Analysis Corp., a Savannah, Georgia, risk assessment firm. “We’re happy. They don’t need to get another storm.”

But the end of one hurricane season means only six months to get ready for the next one, said Kay Wilkins, head of the Southeast Chapter of the American Red Cross.

“While I am taking a deep breath and saying, OK, not this season, I do know it’s possible it could happen next season,” she said.