It may be that the final blow to New Orleans won't be the floodwaters, but rather what the waters turned up ...
...Louisiana, a center of the oil, gas and chemical industries, "was known for its very weak enforcement regulations," Kaufman said, and there are a number of landfills and storage areas containing "thousands of tons" of hazardous material to be leaked and spread...Toxic soils might end up being what turns much of what was city into undeveloped lands or nature reserves.
...Given New Orleans's desperate straits, recovery teams will not be able to do anything with the toxic mess except pump it into the Gulf of Mexico, ensuring that the contamination will spread to a larger area, he said. "There's just no other place for it."
Once the water is gone, environmental officials will likely undertake a "grid survey," sampling the formerly flooded areas to get soil profiles and determine how safe it is for residents to move back or rebuild.
The survey is likely to take six months. "If it were me, I wouldn't go back until there was a solid assessment of contamination of the land," Kaufman said. And even then, he added, authorities will be monitoring levels of water toxicity along the coastline for years: "There is no magic chemical that you can put in the Gulf to make heavy metals or benzene go away. You're stuck with it."
Update 9/4/05: Happily, this may not come to pass.