Hindsight is 20/20. But once in a rare while, foresight is too. For years, researchers have described exactly what would happen if a megahurricane hit New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf region. They predicted that the city levees would not hold. Their elaborate computer models showed that tens of thousands would be left behind. They described rooftop rescues, 80% of New Orleans underwater and "toxic gumbo" purling through the streets. If experts had prophesied a terrorist attack with that kind of accuracy, they would be under suspicion for treason.
How, then, did we get here? How did the richest country on earth end up watching children cry for food in putrid encampments on the evening news? How did reporters reach crowds of the desperate in places where police, troops and emergency responders had not yet been--three days after the storm?
Deconstructing Katrina will take years. But it is already clear that the blame can be well distributed, from the White House to emergency-management officials at federal, state and local levels, all the way down to the cops who abandoned their posts in New Orleans. "The system broke," says Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards Research Lab at the University of South Carolina. "A system that cannot airlift water and food to a community that's desperate for it is a system that is broken."
Close up, the reasons are infuriating. New Orleans officials were supremely unprepared; that was never a secret among people in the disaster business. Meanwhile, throughout the state and Federal governments, much money and willpower had shifted to fighting terrorism, a major risk and vital effort but much less of a sure thing than natural disasters. Because of tax cuts and budget pressures at all levels, many emergency-response capabilities--once the envy of the world--have slipped. If Hurricane Katrina turns out to be the biggest disaster in U.S. history to date, it will also be the least surprising.
The larger lesson may be more humbling: after all the post-9/11 vows, are we still not well enough armed for the next big one? Humans are not very good at understanding risk, and in this country, they perform worst when it costs a lot to prevent or prepare for a disaster--especially when the people who would otherwise suffer the most are poor.
Katrina was a big, vicious storm, it must be said. But Katrina was not the worst-case scenario. Katrina was a test.
BEFORE THE STORM
Hurricanes kill people because we refuse to settle out of their way. Nowhere was that more apparent than in New Orleans, built in a bowl between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. "It was a fool's paradise," says Stephen Leatherman, who has studied hurricanes for 30 years and runs the Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University in Miami.