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It may be unfair, but this is the reality New Orleans leaders should be talking about. In a TIME poll of 1,000 Americans taken this month, 56% said they did not think all of New Orleans should be rebuilt if it might flood again. But in New Orleans, a city cut through with racial distrust and anger over the Corps' faulty levees, the same conversation is laced with suspicion. There is enough high ground in New Orleans for the city to relocate the entire pre-Katrina population more safely. The mostly African-American Lower Ninth Ward could still exist; it would just need to be smaller. But for many locals, rebuilding in the same doomed locations has become a point of pride, of dignity--just the opposite of what it should be. When a planning panel brought in by Nagin's Bring Back New Orleans Commission--comprising 50 specialists in urban and post-disaster planning--late last year proposed holding off on redeveloping places that had flooded repeatedly until residents had more information, the traumatized population recoiled as one. The city council quickly passed a defiant and suicidal resolution: "All neighborhoods [should] be included in the timely and simultaneous rebuilding of all New Orleans neighborhoods."
•A National Culture of Unpreparedness
In the 12 months since Katrina, the rest of the U.S. has not proved to be a quicker study than the Gulf Coast. There is still no federal law requiring state and local officials to plan for the evacuation of the sick, elderly, disabled or poor. But in the past few months, both houses of Congress triumphantly passed bills that require locals to plan for the evacuation of pets.
In June the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released an unprecedented analysis of state and urban emergency plans around the country, including assessments of evacuation plans and command structures. The report concluded that most "cannot be characterized as fully adequate, feasible, or acceptable." Among the worst performers: Dallas, New Orleans and Oklahoma City. (The best by far was the state of Florida.)
But it's not just bureaucrats who are unprepared for calamity. Regular people are even less likely to plan ahead. In this month's TIME poll, about half of those surveyed said they had personally experienced a natural disaster or public emergency. But only 16% said they were "very well prepared" for the next one. Of the rest, about half explained their lack of preparedness by saying they don't live in a high-risk area.
In fact, 91% of Americans live in places at a moderate-to-high risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, high-wind damage or terrorism, according to an estimate calculated for TIME by the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. But Americans have a tendency to be die-hard optimists, literally. It is part of what makes the country great--and vincible. "There are four stages of denial," says Eric Holdeman, director of emergency management for Seattle's King County, which faces a significant earthquake threat. "One is, it won't happen. Two is, if it does happen, it won't happen to me. Three: if it does happen to me, it won't be that bad. And four: if it happens to me and it's bad, there's nothing I can do to stop it anyway."