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Whatever happened, the neglect of the levees was part of a larger trend after 9/11. "We put natural hazards on the back burner," says Dennis Mileti, a veteran disaster researcher who for 10 years ran the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "We diverted our attention to terrorism. I'm not saying that shift was bad. We had no plans in place for terrorism. But the laws of nature were not repealed on Sept. 11."
In October 2001, a House Science Committee held a panel discussion called Weatherproofing the U.S.: Are We Prepared for Severe Storms? "As horrible as the events of Sept. 11 were, hurricanes can be as damaging or worse," Christopher Landsea, a top federal hurricane researcher told the panel that day. "We should expect strong hurricane activity for the next 20, 30, maybe 40 years." Unfortunately, many members were not there to hear it. They were at the Pentagon for a 9/11 memorial service.
Soon afterward, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was demoted, subsumed by the new Department of Homeland Security. That was a mistake, says William Massey, who spent 24 years as FEMA's hurricane-program manager for the southeast U.S. before retiring last year. "The emphasis on terrorism has really hurt FEMA's efforts." When Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University (L.S.U.) Hurricane Center, suggested a year ago that the agency stockpile tents for when houses blow down, "this woman from FEMA said, 'Americans don't live in tents,'" van Heerden recalls. "I said to her, people will kiss your shoes for a tent in the end." It was also worrying that the new head, Michael Brown, would report not to the President but to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff. Like Chertoff, Brown, a Colorado attorney, had no emergency-management experience.
Hurricane Katrina got its name on Thursday, Aug. 25, as it formed in the Bahamas, and by the time it reached Category 3 strength, it was obvious that the storm was a major threat. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a test. This is the real deal," New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said at a news conference ordering city residents to evacuate on Saturday. "Board up your homes, make sure you have enough medicine, make sure the car has enough gas. Treat this one differently because it is pointed towards New Orleans." At FEMA's urging, on the same day, the President declared an emergency in the state of Louisiana, allowing water, food and ice to be stockpiled at bases around the state. The system appeared to be working.
But, as is the case with every hurricane, not everybody would be leaving. In truth, few U.S. cities have good plans for taking out the sick, the elderly and those without cars of their own. The situation in New Orleans, though, was particularly dire. Officials knew that the least mobile residents lived in the most flood-prone part of town. But they had no solution. "When I asked that question, I got a lot of unsure looks," says Brian Wolshon, an engineer with the L.S.U. team who helped design the evacuation plans with state police and transportation officials.