Feature

Katrina

Anatomy of a man-made disaster.

Walter Maestri, emergency manager of Jefferson Parish, La., 'œhad dreaded this call for a decade,'' said Susan Glasser in The Washington Post. It was Friday night, Aug. 26, and Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, was on the phone. 'œWalter,' said Mayfield, 'œget ready. This could be the one.' Hurricane Katrina, churning across the Gulf of Mexico, was hungrily sucking up energy from the warm water. It was growing into a real monster, Mayfield said, a Category 4 or 5, and it was headed for New Orleans. Maestri uttered just three words: 'œOh, my God.'

New Orleans, built below sea level, had long expected a storm like Katrina, said Keith O'Brien in The Boston Globe. In theory, the city, state, and federal governments were prepared to evacuate the city and minimize the damage. An elaborate disaster plan existed on paper. But in the critical hours between the first warnings'”more than two days before the hurricane made landfall'”to the breaching of the city's levees on Monday, 'œgovernment officials at every level'”local, state, and federal'”misjudged, miscommunicated, and underestimated both the power of the storm and the seriousness of the aftermath.' The cascading series of failures left about 80,000 stranded in the city for days, without adequate food or water, and may have contributed to hundreds of deaths.

The plan was flawed from the start, said Andrew Martin in the Chicago Tribune. Last year, local, state, and federal officials ran a mock hurricane drill for New Orleans, and it became clear that about one-fourth of New Orleans' 485,000 residents would not be able to evacuate the city on their own. But in July, Mayor C. Ray Nagin and other city officials quietly decided it would be too difficult to provide enough buses or other transportation to evacuate 100,000 people. In a DVD distributed in poor neighborhoods, the city effectively told residents they 'œwere on their own.'

Little help came from Washington, said Mark Thompson in Time. As Katrina bore down on the city, Nagin frantically pleaded for 700 buses from FEMA. FEMA delivered only 100. FEMA director Michael Brown ordered 1,000 federal workers into the region, but gave them two full days to report. Brown's boss, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, also acted with no urgency, said the Chicago Tribune. He waited 32 hours after Katrina hit the city to declare the hurricane 'œan incident of national significance,' which theoretically could have brought 'œthe full weight of the federal government' to bear. By then, the levees had failed, 80 percent of the city was underwater, and nearly 50,000 people had taken refuge in the Superdome and the city's Convention Center.

When FEMA finally clanked into operation, said Eric Lipton in The New York Times, it actually impeded rescue efforts with its bureaucratic red tape. Hundreds of volunteer firefighters were detained in Atlanta 'œfor days of training on community relations and sexual harassment.' The agency wouldn't let water trucks make a delivery for stranded victims because they didn't have 'œa tasker number.' Evacuation vehicles from neighboring states were denied entry, one sheriff complained, because dispatchers were 'œworking on the paperwork.'

City officials compounded the problem, said Deroy Murdock in National Review Online, by blocking relief efforts by the Salvation Army and Red Cross. The two agencies 'œwere able and eager to deliver water, food, medicine, and other relief' to the city's stranded residents. But local authorities turned them away, fearing that the supplies would encourage residents to 'œsettle in for the long haul' instead of leaving. As the crisis worsened, said Karen Tumulty in Time, Gov. Kathleen Blanco appeared 'œdazed and unsteady.' After the city flooded, she asked President Bush for 'œeverything you got,' but without specifics. Blanco simply assumed Washington would know what to do. She turned out to be wrong.

Evan Thomas

Newsweek

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