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The Superdome has had a lousy track record as a refuge since it was first used in 1998 during Hurricane Georges. The place wasn't prepared for the 14,000 people who showed up there: in the chaos, people stole some $8,000 worth of barstools and artificial plants and did about $46,000 in damage. Seven years later, the city had still not stockpiled enough generator fuel, food and other supplies to handle the job. Over the years city officials have stressed that they didn't want to make it too comfortable at the Superdome since it was safer to leave the city altogether. "It's not a hotel," the director of emergency preparedness for St. Tammany parish told the Times-Picayune in 1999. But they never helped people find a better alternative.
To their credit, Nagin and state officials did pull off a complex traffic-evacuation plan that weekend, which involved reversing the traffic flow on three interstates. A similar scheme led to massive gridlock last year during Hurricane Ivan. Officials had just finished a new plan, weeks before Katrina. For people with cars, it worked beautifully. An estimated 80% of the population evacuated, which--if true--is a major accomplishment in any city--but especially in New Orleans, where residents have to travel at least 80 miles to get out of harm's way.
The Saturday before the storm, Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, called the mayor personally to emphasize just how serious the threat was. "This was only the second time I called a politician in my life," Mayfield tells TIME. "I wanted to be able to go to sleep knowing I had done everything I could do."
On Sunday morning, less than 24 hours before the hurricane's landfall, Nagin finally called for a mandatory evacuation. "We are facing a storm that most of us have long feared," he said. Some city buses were dispatched to take people without cars to the Superdome to ride out the storm. But there is no indication that buses also ferried people out of the city, beyond the reach of water. In fact, a fleet of several hundred buses was left to languish in a lot that eventually flooded.
All this had been foreshadowed with disconcerting accuracy last summer. Hundreds of regional and federal officials met in Baton Rouge, La., for an elaborate simulation exercise. The fictional "Hurricane Pam" left the city under 10 ft. of water and looked a lot like Katrina. The report on the simulation, obtained by TIME last week, warns that transportation would be a major problem.
Before any disaster, the first responsibility of local responders is to evacuate hospitals, nursing homes and special-needs populations, says Billy Zwerschke, former president of the International Association of Emergency Managers and a consultant to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Apparently, aside from some informal plans to rely on churches and neighbors to get people out, the city had not come up with a solution to that particular challenge in time for Katrina.
"Many people have plans sitting on a shelf. New Orleans had two exercises, and they identified the problems," says Billy Wagner, a New Orleans native who is in his 25th season as senior director for emergency management for the Florida Keys. "We do these exercises, and we don't follow through on them. We just don't have the money."