In thinking about Katrina, most Americans consider the disaster to have been a random event, a force of nature that couldn't be controlled or predicted. I know I did. But two years after Katrina drowned New Orleans, I'm persuaded that what happened in the Big Easy was less an act of nature than a man-made disaster. Katrina was not the Big One that the city had long feared; it was a Category 3 storm that mostly missed the city. But through a mixture of shoddy engineering, poor planning and selfish politics, a survivable hurricane was turned into an epic disaster. The storm was not the tragedy--that was an act of nature. The tragedy is how unprepared we were--and how, today, we still have not learned the lessons of Katrina.
In early May, as the second anniversary of the storm was approaching, the managing editors of a number of Time Inc. magazines--including TIME, FORTUNE, PEOPLE, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and ESSENCE--all led by editor-in-chief John Huey, made a trip to New Orleans. I admit that before going, I was skeptical--I had New Orleans fatigue. I felt as if I had heard and read enough about Katrina. But from conversations with everyone from Mayor Ray Nagin to jazz great Terence Blanchard, I learned that New Orleanians were deeply disturbed by the pace of reconstruction and how that effort was being ignored by the rest of America. From the boat tour we took of the waterways outside the city, where we saw firsthand how human activity was destroying the wetlands, to the plane ride that revealed how oil and gas canals had changed the ecology of the area, we discovered a city that is still vulnerable to disaster.
Someday, historians will find in the saga of New Orleans a 21st century morality tale about wealth and poverty, black and white, man and nature. We chose to focus on the woeful lack of preparedness for the future as a symbol of the same dearth of responsibility that gave us Katrina in the first place. Our special report is built around a powerful cover story written and reported by senior correspondent Michael Grunwald, who has been obsessed with New Orleans since Katrina. Michael, who is the author of The Swamp, a well-received book on the Everglades, explores why the tragedy of 2005 was the result of mismanagement, myopia and missed opportunities, and the pivotal role played by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As he says, "If you thought Katrina was bad, just wait till the next one."
We hope that our story is a warning to Congress, the Corps and the leaders of New Orleans that business as usual is just not acceptable. In fact, I believe that in this unique presidential campaign, voters should demand that candidates of both parties explain what they would do to protect New Orleans from the next Katrina. To that end, TIME is going to work with the city of New Orleans to sponsor a presidential debate there about the city's future.
This month FORTUNE, PEOPLE, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and MONEY will be publishing a series of reports on New Orleans. Articles from these and other Time Inc. publications marking the second anniversary of Katrina will be hosted on TIME.com You will find an updated index of those pieces at time.com/katrina This is our fifth cover story on New Orleans since Katrina, and probably not the last. But if there is one reason to believe that this great American city can rise again, it is the resilience of its people. Over dinner in the French Quarter one night, we heard from several of those working to bring New Orleans back. We invited them and other prominent New Orleanians to share their ideas for saving the city. You can find their responses, and offer your own, on TIME.com
Richard Stengel, MANAGING EDITOR