You don't have to ask Alicia and Eric Hansen if they are ready for the next hurricane to hit New Orleans. Visit them in their sunny yellow bungalow, which took on 3 ft. of water after Hurricane Katrina. The house now sits high and dry on concrete columns that soar 11 ft. into the air. The first time Alicia walked up a ladder into her living room, she stomped on the floor to make sure the whole thing wouldn't collapse like a wobbly flamingo. Now, she says, nothing but the "perfect storm"--a Category 4 or 5--will budge her. "I'm not planning on leaving," she says, peering down from her home in the treetops. "Flooding isn't any issue anymore."
With the hurricane season starting June 1, flooding is on everyone's mind in New Orleans these days. Downtown last week, government officials, military men in desert gear and private suppliers ran a tabletop exercise against a fictional Category 4 hurricane named Oscar. Next up: the exercise goes live, with role players posing as residents fleeing a Category 3 storm by bus from the Earnest N. Morial Convention Center, the scene of real-life tragedy after Katrina. Along Lake Pontchartrain, meanwhile, contractors for the Army Corps of Engineers are rushing to finish new floodgates on the city's perimeter, working even at night under klieg lights. New levees replacing those wiped out by the hurricane are nearly finished. The result, ironically, is that the Katrina-ravished Ninth Ward, lying devastated behind its new, higher, fortified levee, may now be one of the safer places to live in the city.
Still, New Orleanians learned a valuable lesson from Katrina: Trust no one and nothing. They're not counting on the levees to hold or the government to rescue them this time. Neighborhoods like Broadmoor are recruiting block captains to canvass residents who have returned, noting which homes are occupied, who lives in flimsy trailers and which elderly residents might need help. In Gentilly, where many senior citizens died, residents are looking into their own text-messaging system for emergency alerts. Self-sufficiency is everyone's mantra, from civic associations to city hall. "We have purchased jet boats and sandbags," says Glenn Stoudt of the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association, before trying out a joke. "There are several arks being constructed, and the rats and mosquitoes are pairing up." That's called hurricane humor in these parts.