By R. Neal Those of us who have lived in Southern coastal states are all too familiar with hurricanes, but we haven’t seen anything like Katrina in over a decade. The last Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. was, I believe, Andrew in 1992. It slammed Southern Florida and went on across the Gulf and slammed New Orleans. (Click on the "there's more" link below for the rest of the article...) Andrew produced a 17 foot storm surge on the Florida coast, and was responsible for 23 deaths and over $25 billion in damage in Florida and the Gulf Coast. It was classified as a Category 4 hurricane and was believed to be a Category 5 when it made landfall, but the nearest measuring station instruments were destroyed so this was based on NOAA estimates. The Mrs. and I saw the damage around Homestead several months after Andrew came through. It was essentially leveled, how one might imagine the aftermath of a nuclear detonation. The only good to come out of it was a reexamination and strengthening of building codes. Katrina reached Category 5 strength yesterday afternoon, but has weakened overnight to a Category 4 as the outer bands reached land. This is still an extremely dangerous storm, and if you’ve been following it you know that most of the Gulf Coast is under mandatory evacuation. There’s really nothing you can do to prepare for a storm of this magnitude except to get as far away inland as you can get. As Katrina bears down on the Louisiana coast, New Orleans is at particular risk. Because most of the area is below sea level, the storm surge could cause extensive flood damage. A system of levees keeps the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain out, but Hurricane Betsy, a Category 4 storm that weakened to a Category 3 as it made landfall, hit New Orleans in 1965 causing Lake Pontchartrain to breach the levees. More work has been done since then to “hurricane proof” the levee system, but nobody knows what will happen with a storm of Katrina’s magnitude. Camille, a deadly Category 5 storm, came close to New Orleans in 1969. It made landfall about 60 miles east in Mississippi, and generated a 28 foot storm surge. Officials fear that a direct hit by a Category 4 or 5 hurricane will cause catastrophic damage to New Orleans. Many have criticized government and emergency management officials for “over-hyping” hurricane dangers, causing the public to become complacent. This is not the time for complacency. This is the real deal. Because no one can predict exactly where the storm will make landfall or what damage will result, officials must take all necessary precautions to protect life. Folks need to trust them and pay attention. The Gulf Coast is starting to experience rains and high winds from the outer bands of Katrina as I write this at about 7:30 AM. Landfall is expected later in the day. We can only hope that it continues to weaken before the worst arrives. Our thoughts and prayers will be with the folks along the Gulf Coast today, and especially our Southern neighbors in the beautiful city of New Orleans. UPDATE: It appears New Orleans was spared a direct hit, but there are reports of extensive wind damage and some flooding. Mississippi wasn't so lucky. The Biloxi/Gulfport area seems hardest hit. Governor Haley Barbour just held a press conference and reported widespread damage and flooding. He said it could take "years" to recover. National Guard units from around the South are responding to assist with search and rescue, recovery operations, and looting control. A National Guard officer said they would be "aggressive" with looters. It will probably be days before the full extent of the damage is known, but it sounds like it will be pretty bad all along the Gulf Coast. Again our thoughts and prayers are with our neighbors to the South. Consider helping out any way you can with charities and relief organizations who will be responding.