New Orleans is located at (29.964722, −90.070556) on the banks of the Mississippi River, approximately upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of, of which, or 51.55%, is land.
The city is located in the Mississippi River Delta on the east and west banks of the Mississippi River and south of Lake Pontchartrain. The area along the river is characterized by ridges and hollows.
New Orleans was originally settled on the natural levees or high ground, along the Mississippi River. After the Flood Control Act of 1965, the United States Army Corps of Engineers built floodwalls and man-made levees around a much larger geographic footprint that included previous marshland and swamp. Whether or not this human interference has caused subsidence is a topic of debate. A study by an associate professor at Tulane University claims:
On the other hand, a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers claims that "New Orleans is subsiding (sinking)":
A recent study by Tulane and Xavier University notes that 51% of New Orleans is at or above sea level, with the more densely populated areas generally on higher ground. The average elevation of the city is currently between one and two feet (0.5 m) below sea level, with some portions of the city as high as at the base of the river levee in Uptown and others as low as below sea level in the farthest reaches of Eastern New Orleans.
In 2005, storm surge from Hurricane Katrina caused catastrophic failure of the federally designed and built levees, flooding 80% of the city. A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers says that "had the levees and floodwalls not failed and had the pump stations operated, nearly two-thirds of the deaths would not have occurred".
New Orleans has always had to consider the risk of hurricanes, but the risks are dramatically greater today due to coastal erosion from human interference. Since the beginning of the 20th century, it has been estimated that Louisiana has lost of coast (including many of its barrier islands), which once protected New Orleans against storm surge. Following Hurricane Katrina, the United States Army Corps of Engineers has instituted massive levee repair and hurricane protection measures to protect the city.
In 2006, Louisiana voters overwhelmingly adopted an amendment to the state's constitution to dedicate all revenues from off-shore drilling to restore Louisiana's eroding coast line. Congress has allocated $7 billion to bolster New Orleans' flood protection.
According to a study by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council, Levees and floodwalls surrounding New Orleans—no matter how large or sturdy—cannot provide absolute protection against overtopping or failure in extreme events. Levees and floodwalls should be viewed as a way to reduce risks from hurricanes and storm surges, not as measures that completely eliminate risk. For structures in hazardous areas and residents who do not relocate, the committee recommended major floodproofing measures—such as elevating the first floor of buildings to at least the 100-year flood level.
The climate of New Orleans is humid subtropical (Köppen climate classification Cfa), with short, generally mild winters and hot, humid summers. The monthly daily average temperature ranges from in January to in July and August. The lowest recorded temperature was on February 13, 1899. The highest recorded temperature was on June 24, 2009. The average precipitation is annually; the summer months are the wettest, while October is the driest month. Precipitation in winter usually accompanies the passing of a cold front. On average, there are 77 days of + highs, 8.1 days per winter where the high does not exceed, and 8.0 nights with freezing lows annually; in a typical year the coldest night will be around . It is rare for the temperature to reach or dip below .
Hurricanes pose a severe threat to the area, and the city is particularly at risk because of its low elevation, and because it is surrounded by water from the north, east, and south, and Louisiana's sinking coast. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, New Orleans is the nation's most vulnerable city to hurricanes. Indeed, portions of Greater New Orleans have been flooded by: the Grand Isle Hurricane of 1909, the New Orleans Hurricane of 1915, 1947 Fort Lauderdale Hurricane, Hurricane Flossy in 1956, Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Hurricane Georges in 1998, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and Hurricane Gustav in 2008, with the flooding in Betsy being significant and in a few neighborhoods severe, and that in Katrina being disastrous in the majority of the city.
New Orleans experiences snowfall only on rare occasions. A small amount of snow fell during the 2004 Christmas Eve Snowstorm and again on Christmas (December 25) when a combination of rain, sleet, and snow fell on the city, leaving some bridges icy. Before that, the last White Christmas was in 1964 and brought . Snow fell again on December 22, 1989, when most of the city received .
The last significant snow fall in New Orleans was on the morning of December 11, 2008.
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