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Documenting the Aftermath of Hurricane Georges

By Kyle Donaldson, Johnson Controls World Services Inc. at USGS NWRC

photo of Tommy Michot

Thomas Michot, USGS ecologist and pilot with the National Wetlands Research Center, is no stranger to Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands, a chain of barrier islands some 60 miles east of New Orleans. Since the 1980's, Michot has conducted extensive ground studies of the chain's seagrass beds and the redhead ducks that winter there. But when he, NWRC Center Director Robert Stewart and Charlie Demas of the USGS Water Resources Division surveyed the Chandeleurs Sept. 29, 1998, mere hours after Hurricane Georges had passed, Michot found that the island chain he knew so well was barely recognizable.

A Category 2 storm, Georges paled in comparison to the sheer power of 1992's Category 5 Hurricane Andrew. But as far as the Chandeleurs were concerned, what Georges lacked in strength, it made up for in a path that saw the eye of the storm passing almost directly over the chain. And whereas Andrew had not left any overwashes across the Chandeleurs whatsoever, Georges left behind dozens of such wide, open channels. "The Gulf of Mexico had in essence become continuous with the Chandeleur Sound," Michot recalls. In other words, the single most important line of defense standing between New Orleans and future hurricanes had all but disappeared.

Visual orientation above the once familiar terrain was difficult that day. Newly deposited sediment plumes appeared. Seagrass beds surrounding the islands, usually readily visible at 500 feet, were now completely obscured by turbid water. In addition, Michot found "there was no visible beach remaining on the main island." This combination of new features and the loss of old - not to mention the remnants of rough weather they had to be constantly wary of - left the team constantly second guessing themselves as to their exact whereabouts as they documented the damage.

Chandeluer Lighthouse Pre Hurricane Georges
Chandeluer Lighthouse Post Hurricane Georges

On the northern tip of the chain, however, the trio eventually discovered the familiar landmark of the Chandeleur Lighthouse. Yet even it managed to catch Michot off guard. Prior to the storm, the lighthouse had stood on a vegetated rise, with a spit of land extending some three-quarters of a mile to its north. But when Michot and team encountered it, it was standing in open water, the closest piece of terra firma now about a quarter of a mile to the south.

After all his years of aerial surveys, Michot admits that he'd "almost grown complacent" about the damage he expected to see following a storm. But even with his dual roles of pilot and scientist at the forefront that day, Michot still had the capacity for astonishment. On the archive tape, Michot can be heard describing such topographic specifics as "deltaic plumes with feathering to the northeast" during much of the flyover. But on several occasions Michot falls quiet for minutes at a time, punctuating these otherwise silent stretches with but one repeated word coming across his headset mike: "Wow."

Michot's opportunity to indulge his sense of awe was short-lived. Once they landed and put parts of the video footage on the Web, NWRC was besieged with requests for copies and interviews. Calls from media like CNN, the New York Times and the Associated Press burned up NWRC's phone lines for the next 48 hours.

After surviving dozens of interviews, Michot once again had only one word, "Wow."

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