HOUMA, La. – In the low-lying Cajun country west of New Orleans, where levees are largely nonexistent and the sea has been nibbling away the land for years, the looming threat of Hurricane Gustav has inspired a pervasive sense of dread.
Standing in a hallway of the emergency center here, state Sen. Reggie Dupre offered a worst-case assessment of Gustav's potential impact: "This could be our Katrina."
With Gustav heading toward the Louisiana coast as a storm of a catastrophic proportions, forecasts predict it will make landfall Monday in the bayou country in southwest Louisiana — the heart of one of America's most culturally diverse rural landscapes.
If Gustav makes landfall as feared near here, an area about 100 miles in width — extending from vulnerable portions of New Orleans west of the Mississippi River across a large swath of swampy land centered around the oil-and-gas town of Houma — could be flooded.
"What Katrina didn't destroy in '05, it looks like Gustav could destroy in '08," said Ivor van Heerden, a hurricane expert with Louisiana State University.
It is an area already at the brink of catastrophe.
For most of the past half century, the bayou communities that thrived in the Barataria basin have watched their land literally disappear. A combination of factors — oil drilling, hurricanes, river levees, damming of rivers — have destroyed marshes and swamps that once flourished in this river delta.
Entire towns in this basin of the Mississippi delta have disappeared because of land loss. The rates of loss are among the highest in the world. The U.S. Geological Survey says about 900 square miles of coastal land has disappeared since the 1950s and that has left the area with virtually no natural buffer.
Besides the loss of land, the people here are largely without levees.
A federal levee plan to protect Houma and the surrounding towns has never gotten off the ground. Meanwhile, most of Houma is protected by drainage levees about 10 feet tall. Gustav's storm surge is expected to be more than 10 feet high and could overwhelm the city's protection.
"Houma is just sitting there naked," said Roy Dokka, a geologist with LSU who's conducted a recent survey of levee heights in southeastern Louisiana. "People do not realize how bad it could be."
The danger is not lost on local officials.
"There could be 3 feet of water or more in downtown Houma," said Al Levron, a spokesman for Terrebonne Parish, of which Houma is the government seat.
It's a worst case scenario for the folks here who have largely been spared a direct hit from a hurricane for at least 44 years when Hurricane Hilda struck in 1964.
And back in 1964 there was plenty of marsh and swamp cushioning Houma.
"We have no buffers anymore," Dupre said.
Gustav's threat comes at a time when Houma is actually booming. As a jumping off point for offshore oil field work, unemployment is at 3 percent and housing prices are among the most stable in the nation, officials said. And the parish's population — last recorded at about 105,000 — is growing, Dupre said.
"It's going to tear Houma. Wipe it out if it comes the way its coming," said Joe McGuire, a 70-year-old retired maintenance worker.
He sat in front of his home wiping sweat from his brow as he waited for his daughter to finish work so the family could pack up nine cars and leave home as a caravan.
Not everybody is leaving.
Farther south, on the Grand Caillou Bayou, Keith "Bodick" Luke, a 54-year-old fisherman, sat in the cabin of his boat, the Miss Brandy, with his wife and a deckhand smoking cigarettes and watching the storm forecasts.
"We're going to ride it out. It's not a smart thing," he said.
But, he said, they were stuck because bridges on the bayou were not going to be opened and they weren't about to leave the Miss Brandy behind.