What went wrong in hurricane crisis?

What went wrong in hurricane crisis?
Why did it take so long for help to arrive? Were warnings ignored?

By Stone Phillips
Anchor
Dateline NBC
Updated: 10:48 p.m. ET Sept. 9, 2005

Looking back at it now, at the devastating destruction across the Gulf region, at one of America’s most beloved cities under water, at all the unimaginable human anguish, it’s hard to conceive that events unfolded as painfully as they did.

Just as in the aftermath of 9/11, tough questions are being asked. How much of the damage done by this catastrophic storm could have been prevented? What did the government know before Katrina hit? What went wrong? And who is accountable? “Dateline” talked to some of those who say Hurricane Katrina didn’t have to turn out the way it did.

Two days after hurricane Katrina struck, the Secretary of Homeland Security seemed almost self-congratulatory about the federal response to the disaster.

On August 31, 2005, Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said, “We are extremely pleased with the response that every element of the federal government, all of our federal partners, have made to this terrible tragedy.”

But as the days passed, images flooded the airwaves: people stranded, lawlessness in the streets, people without food, water.

Four days after Katrina stuck, the president made his first trip to the region. As he left the White House, he acknowledged that something had gone terribly wrong with the relief effort.

He said: “The results are not acceptable. I’m heading down there right now. We’ll deploy the assets necessary to get the situation under control.”

But by the time he arrived in the area that same day, he was heaping praise on the man then running the relief effort. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” he said. “The FEMA Director is working 24 — they’re working 24 hours a day.”

But as more time passed, additional questions would be raised about just how good a job the government did.

Walter Maestri: What happened? How did this breakdown occur? You know, what led to this kind of catastrophe ?

The catastrophe of Katrina may have come as a shock to most Americans, but it should have been no surprise at all to many officials in local, state and federal government.

A prophetic newspaper series
Marc Schleifstein, a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, says the danger New Orleans was in wasn’t a secret.

In June 2002, he co-authored what can only be called a prophetic five-part front page series warning that a direct hit on New Orleans by a major hurricane was inevitable.

Stone Phillips: Your words three years ago: “Thousands will drown trapped in homes or cars by rising water. Others will be washed away or crushed by debris. Survivors will end up trapped on roofs, in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water with no means of escape and little food or fresh water perhaps for several days.” I mean, that’s just a part of what you wrote. It sounds exactly like what happened.

Mark Schleifstein, reporter for New Orleans Times-Picayune: It is what happened. And we knew it—we knew that was going happen.

That’s because hurricanes have battered New Orleans and other towns along the Gulf of Mexico forever. Before Katrina, there were a dozen deadly hurricanes stretching back over a hundred years—to a time when they couldn’t be predicted and didn’t have names.

When hurricanes weren’t devastating the region, floods were.

The great flood of 1927 displaced more than 300,000 people—many of them ending up in tent cities.

In fact, the threat of hurricanes and flooding was so severe that as far back as the 1700s private landowners began to build a system of levees to protect New Orleans. Because what was obvious back then, and what we’ve seen again these past ten days, is that New Orleans is uniquely vulnerable to flooding.

Schleifstein: It’s a bowl. And it’s so low—my house is eight feet below sea level behind that levee. So once water tops the levees, you’re filling a bowl. And the more water that pours in, the more water, the higher it gets. And you can’t get the water out.

Recognizing that threat, in the 1960s, the federal government spent millions around New Orleans to greatly expand the levee system. The goal: to make sure the levees could withstand a major hurricane and hold back the water surge that might accompany it.

One way or another the city survived every major hurricane that came its way: Betsy in 1965, Camille in 1969, and Ivan just last year.

Forecasters’ growing alarm
Two weeks ago, as Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf coast, forecasters became increasingly alarmed that Katrina was growing into a monster unlike almost any other storm they’d seen before.

Billy Wagner: There’s gonna be a tremendous amount of damage. It’s a big system. It’s a lot bigger than Camille was.

That was the scene inside the National Hurricane Center in Miami as the storm approached.

The experts in Miami weren’t the only ones worried about Katrina. At the same time, in Baton Rouge, another hurricane expert, Ivor van Heerden of Louisiana State University, was running computer models to predict the possible damage. It was looking really bad to him too.

Ivor van Heerden, hurricane expert: On Saturday evening, we put out our first storm search model output that showed the city was going to flood.

Phillips: On Saturday night?

Van Heerden: Saturday night. And we sent out an e-mail to federal agencies, to the state agencies.

Phillips: So, your model said even on its track Saturday night that a storm surge could lead to flooding in the city of New Orleans.

Van Heerden: Yes.

He sent the e-mail to the Hurricane Center in Miami. There, Max Mayfield, the director, had already issued a public alert, warning this could be the big one.

Max Mayfield, director of hurricane center in Miami: And—you know, we—kept emphasizing that the potential for large loss of life was there. And our headline said, “Potentially Catastrophic Hurricane Katrina.” So that is really hard to let go of loss of life.

He was so concerned he did something he rarely ever does. He called everyone he could think of who could help get the word out. Among them was New Orleans newspaper reporter Mark Schleifstein.

Schleifstein: He said, “Mark, how high is your building and what’s its structural integrity?” And I knew at that point that we were gonna get hit.

He also called Walter Maestri, one of the top emergency relief officials in the New Orleans area.

Walter Maestri, New Orleans relief official: And he said, “Walter, let me tell you right now, I think it’s coming to you. Be prepared.” I said, “Max, are you sure?” He said, “I’m as sure as I can be.” And I can tell you, Max Mayfield’s not a person who does that lightly.

And he didn’t stop there.

Mayfield: And I did call the Louisiana and Mississippi governors. And Mayor Nagin in New Orleans, just to tell them that this is—the real thing. I wanted to be sure that I had done everything that I could do to—you know, let people know how serious this was.

On Sunday, as the storm picked up speed, Mayfield even briefed President Bush via video conference.

The president had already declared a state of emergency. And the mayor of New Orleans who had urged people to leave the city voluntarily, now made evacuation mandatory.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said, “We are facing a storm that most of us have feared I do want to create panic, but I do want people to understand that this is of the highest nature.”

The next day, Monday, Katrina came ashore. And early indications were that the city once again had dodged a bullet. But this time the Big Easy had run out of luck.

And the people of New Orleans were about to pay dearly for years of government inaction.

Van Heerden: I hope they apologize to everyone of those people who’ve died unnecessarily because there are thousands, in my opinion, who have died unnecessarily.

When Katrina came ashore, Mississippi took a direct hit and communities all along the Gulf Coast were wiped out. But it seemed New Orleans had been spared the worst. The city was not under water. It looked as if the levees had held.

On August 29, Monday night, NBC’s Carl Quintanilla was reporting that onlookers were back in the French Quareter. “In the words of one, the fact that the damage wasn’t worse was ‘pure New Orleans luck,’” quoted Quintanilla.

But that night everything changed. The storm surge had breeched the levees and floodwalls.

Hurricane expert Ivor van Heerden got a frightening phone call.

Van Heerden: At eight o’clock, the hammer dropped. Somebody came to us at the LSU desk and said that there’s a nursing home and they’ve just phoned in. The water was rising half a foot an hour at the nursing home.

Phillips: When you realized the levees had failed, what did you think?

Van Heerden: My God, it’s night time. The water’s going to rise slowly, quietly and the next thing, they’re going to climb out of their beds and step in water. And the panic’s gonna go in. So what do a lot of them do? They were possible forced up the attic. You know, I just had the worst chill.

Phillips: A slow, quiet—

Van Heerden: Filling at night.

Phillips: Killer.

Van Heerden: Imagine the chill that went through those people.

The following morning it became the city was rapidly filling with water.

The next morning, on NBC’s “Today” show, Brian Williams called it a disaster. It was dry the night before, he said.

Not just a couple of feet of water where Brian Williams was standing in the historic French Quarter, but up to 20 feet of water in other parts of the city, submerging entire neighborhoods, and threatening the survival of the city.

Warnings about leeves
What hasn’t been widely known until now is that over the years many local state and federal government officials had been warned over and over again about this very scenario.

This week, Walter Maestri, Director of Emergency Management in Jefferson Parish just outside the city of New Orleans, told us he couldn’t help but remember the meeting he and other Louisiana officials had four years ago with the then-director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Maestri: And he told us, he said, “Look, you guys are the number one community in the United States to be adversely affected by a land-falling hurricane.”

Phillips: Number one?

Maestri: Number one. And he knew it.

Others say it was common knowledge among emergency planners that the levees built to protect the city might not even do what they were designed to do 40 years ago. That is, protect the city from a Category Three hurricane.

Schleifstein: The levee systems were built to withstand a Category Three hurricane. And the federal officials, at all levels, have become nervous about the levee system that exists today because it no longer will withstand a three and they know that.

Phillips: Wait—wait a minute. I mean, generally we’ve been hearing that this levee system could withstand a Category Three hurricane. You’re saying officials knew that it might not?

Schleifstein: Yeah.

Phillips: A three, even a two could have been a problem?

Schleifstein: Even a two would be a problem for certain areas.

That’s partly because, over the years, New Orleans has sunk even further, and the wetlands that serve as a natural protective buffer have been diminished by commercial development and rising water levels. And what about those aging levees and floodwalls?

So if the levees were so deficient, why you might wonder didn’t the federal government do more to improve them.

In fact, over the last few years, the Army Corps of Engineers – which repairs and inspects the levees – asked for millions of dollars to improve flood protection, but Congress gave the Corps much less than it asked for.

Al Naomi of the Army Corps of Engineers oversees the levees. He says it would actually require billions to build levees strong enough to withstand a storm like Katrina. And he says there wasn’t time anyway.

Al Naomi, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: It would have taken a good 20 years of preparation and construction to make this city stormproof for a Category 5 storm. It would have been too late.

So officials knew that some day the levees might fail. And it turns out they were warned just last year how catastrophic a levee failure would be.

‘Hurricane Pam’ drill
In July of 2004, FEMA sponsored what amounted to a hurricane “war game.” It anticipated what could happen if a hypothetical category three storm named Pam hit New Orleans. LSU hurricane expert Ivor van Heerden was one of the organizers.

Van Heerden: It showed that there was going to be potentially 300,000 people to be rescued, some pretty serious public health issues. And that we were going to have to find alternative housing for about 800,000 people.

Phillips: So a huge public health and safety crisis on your hands?

Van Heerden: Exactly.

Despite the dire predictions, Van Heerden says some federal officials didn’t seem to take the drill seriously.

Van Heerden: I definitely felt that some of them thought I was an academic geek. And, you know, they scoffed at us.

There were some folks from the Corps of Engineers who were actually kind of laughing at this.

Phillips: Laughing at—at—

Van Heerden: “This is an impossibility. This is not gonna happen.”

Phillips: Dismissing it?

Vanheerden: That’s right.

And he says, a representative from FEMA even objected when Van Heerden, who was born in South Africa, recommended buying tents to shelter the hundreds of thousands of evacuees expected in a real future hurricane.

Van Heerden: And her response to me was — Americans don’t live in tents.

Phillips: This was a FEMA official?

Vanheerden: That’s right.

Phillips: Americans don’t live in tents.

Van Heerden: Yeah, obviously because I have an accent, she thought I didn’t understand the American way of life. It hurts. You know, I should have grabbed her, shook her by the shoulders, you know? Showed her some video of other refugee situations.

Phillips: Think she regrets those words today?

Vanheerden: I bet she does.

Vanheerden told us he gave a CD containing his Hurricane Pam presentation warning of a potential catastrophe to local, state and federal officials — from FEMA, the U.S. military, and the White House.

Emergency Management Director Walter Maestri participated in the same drill.

Phillips: Federal officials have suggested that this storm and all of this—all that’s happened, just could not have been anticipated. What do you say to that?

Maestri: I tell them to read the report that they paid for from the exercise that they financed and managed. And tell me that they couldn’t anticipate it. Because Stone, I can tell you right now, everything that’s happened is in that report. Every detail is in that report.

But the Hurricane Pam Report was not widely distributed to the public and few citizens heard about the catastrophic losses it foretold.

Louisiana officials did make an effort to teach citizens what to do if the city ever flooded. The state funded a video, obtained by Dateline. But it never got to the citizens of New Orleans. In a cruel irony, the tape was supposed to be released this month.

Had New Orleans residents actually seen it prior to Katrina, they would have heard their mayor, Ray Nagin say:

“The main thing is everyone needs to make their own plans. Check with your neighbors. Check with your relatives. Car pool. And make sure that you have a way to go out,” he said on the tape.

But when the storm hit, thousands of people had no plans and no way out.

Hours after the city started filling with water, the nation watched in astonishment as New Orleans began to drown.

People really were on their own as they struggled to survive.

There were heroic rescues, but there was little food and no clean water, sanitation, electricity, or phone service.

The city was rapidly sinking into chaos. Order had broken down. Looters roamed freely, some to survive, some to steal.

Everyone was watching in disbelief as one nightmarish scene played out after another. And soon, everyone was asking: how could it possibly have come to this? How could the most powerful nation on earth fail so badly in protecting and rescuing its own people?

The first sign of mismanagement

Perhaps the first sign that the management of this disaster was about to become a disaster of its own came even before Katrina hit.

There was an evacuation plan posted on the city Web site promising that “The City of New Orleans will utilize all available resources to quickly and safely evacuate threatened areas.”

But the plan apparently existed only on paper.

The city itself had said it would take at least 72 hours to get everyone out of New Orleans, but Mayor Ray Nagin did not call for a mandatory evacuation until Sunday, less than 24 hours before Katrina barreled into the coastline. And once he did, there was a mad scramble to get out of town—bumper to bumper traffic reported for up to 180 miles.

It was slow going but 80 percent of the city’s residents did get out. Still, just as the city’s own plan anticipated up to 100,000 residents were left behind.

The city planned to bus as many of them as possible to a shelter of last resort — the Superdome. But when the time came, many of them couldn’t get there.

One picture makes you wonder how much more the city had might’ve done: Dozens and dozens of buses under water. Had they been moved to higher ground, perhaps they could have gotten people out and supplies in.

Those who did make it to the Superdome would soon find themselves living in shockingly squalid conditions.

The situation might not have spiraled out of control if the state and federal governments had moved more quickly and efficiently.

Maestri: The state is supposed to be a principal coordinating agency between the locals and the feds. And that was a tremendous breakdown there, it didn’t happen.

The state has also been criticized for not moving enough national guardsmen in soon enough to evacuate so many people who so desperately needed help.

Louisiana’s Republican Senator David Vitter has been critical of the state’s Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco.

Sen. David Vitter: Now that was the governor’s call. In terms of the National Guard and getting National Guard troops in. Now, personally, I think that took too long.

Was it a federal failure?
But many independent experts say the greatest failures were at the federal level.

Jane Bullock, former FEMA senior official: I don’t believe this disaster is about failed evacuation. I think this disaster is about a failed system and failed leadership at the federal level.

Jane Bullock is a former senior official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She was a career civil servant, promoted to her senior position by the Clinton administration. She says the miscalculations began before Katrina made landfall and were made not just by the city and state. Though FEMA says it prepared for the storm, Jane Bullock says federal efforts fell short.

Bullock: My biggest surprise was the fact that they hadn’t pre-deployed more assets: military assets, food, water, supplies, medical, before the hurricane struck. Because they knew it was coming. And I think, if they had pre-deployed those assets; lives would’ve been saved.

Phillips: You ordered an evacuation, but what was mobilized? I mean were national guard troops in position. Were helicopters standing by? Were buses ready to take people away?

Nagin: No. None of that.

Phillips: None of that?

Nagin: None of that.

Phillips: None of that?

Nagin: None of that.

Phillips: Why is that?

Nagin: I dont know that is question for somebody else. All I can do is that I was dealing with it as a mayor — how do I prepare my city for an incredibly powerful storm so immediately we tried to get as many people out as possible.

By declaring a state of emergency in Louisiana and Mississippi two days before the levees failed and flooding began, the president had given FEMA the green light to move in.

Bullock: Once the President declares the disaster, FEMA is in charge, working in coordination with state and local governments.

The day before the storm hit FEMA director Mike Brown—whose lack of experience later came into question—promised that the federal government would be there to help.

On that day, Brown said, “FEMA is not going to hesitate at all in this storm. We are not going to sit back and make this a bureaucratic process. We’re gonna move fast, we’re gonna move quick and we’re gonna do whatever it takes to help these disaster victims.”

But we know now federal aid did not come quickly. Sometimes it didn’t come at all.

Bullock: Nobody pulled the trigger on the resources. The director of FEMA didn’t pull the trigger. The Department of Homeland Security didn’t pull the trigger. The resources simply didn’t get there.

And it wasn’t always clear whether it was the state or federal government that was to blame. Is it possible state officials bear some of the responsibility because they didn’t know how to get the help they needed?

Phillips: Governor Blanco’s office said we wanted troops and we wanted choppers and we wanted food and water. And FEMA wanted an organizational chart. Did this deteriorate into a turf battle?

Nagin: Yes — in my opinion absolutely. Who is responsible? Who has the ultimate call? How do things move quickly and at the end of the day – it may be a struggle over money. And I think it is a dog-gone shame because people suffered and they didn’t have to suffer.

And maybe they didn’t have to die.

Jack Stephens, Sherriff of St. Bernard Parish: We’ve seen people die in front of our eyes because they didn’t have adequate water and adequate medicine. It was like a scene from Exodus. No one can blame somebody else for an act of God. But the federal response to this disaster cost people lives. Their delinquency in getting just the fundamental things that it takes to stay alive, just water and medicine, just a little bit of food down here, cost people their lives.

An unintended consequence of the war on terror also slowed the relief effort. Because of new anti-terror safeguards put in place after 9/11, volunteers from other states, who wanted to bring help and supplies into the gulf region, say they first had to be cleared into the hurricane zone by FEMA.

Sheriff Dennis Randle from Carroll county, Indiana says he had men ready to roll south, but they were told to wait.

Dennis Randle, sheriff from Carroll County Indiana: We had to fax off all the officers that were coming down here — their names and what they did for the department. We had to get our paperwork through our state FEMA. Indiana hadn’t gotten the request for help yet. That’s what we were being told. Watching the news and watching the mayor, it was pretty clear that he needed help.

Even this Animal Rescue League worker was forced to get FEMA’s okay to come in and save stranded pets.

Nicholas Gilman: This is really frustrating. We’ve got the resources, we’ve got the people. And it is frustrating not to be able to get to work.

And there have been many reports that help was actually turned away by FEMA because the agency had not approved the delivery.

And then there was this story that we found equally hard to fathom — a medical assessment team capable of treating hundreds of patients a day— was sent by FEMA from Alabama to Mississippi and then on to Texas. Over 11 days, they say they ended up treating one person for a small cut. Yesterday, they were moved yet again.

Just days after the city flooded, New Orleans had deteriorated into chaos. Thousands were stranded in their homes by high water, with only a small band of Coast Guard rescuers and local first responders going house to house to try to save them.

The Superdome and convention center were ground zero for the hell that had become New Orleans. People there were angry and desperate.

NBC Cameraman Tony Zumbado was on TV showing pictures of angry citizens at the Convention Center. “I can’t put into words the amount of destruction that is in this city and how these people are coping they are just left behind there is nothing offered to them.”

They were also afraid. Fear and lawlessness seemed to rule the streets, overwhelming the police. Hundreds of officers didn’t show up for work, many possibly choosing to stay with their families to help them survive — two officers committed suicide.

Just who was in charge?
There were some Louisiana National Guardsmen in New Orleans—but not enough to restore order or to distribute supplies to a starving city.

Walter Maestri: All of the destruction that’s the result of civil disorder could have been avoided if we would have had the resources would have been available to feed hungry people, to give hungry people food and water and formula for the infants.

Walter Maestri, Emergency Management Director of for Jefferson Parish, says federal help of any kind was late in coming.

Phillips: When did the first federal presence really show up?

Maestri: For approximately six days we sat here waiting.

Phillips: Nearly a week?

Maestri: Nearly a week.

Phillips: Were you prepared?

Maestri: We had done what FEMA told us to be prepared for. We were ready to sustain ourselves for 48 to 60 hours. And we did that, we did that. We were basically told to hang on by our fingernails for those 60 hours or so and we’ll be there, we’ll come and get you. It didn’t happen.

Phillips: Did the federal government fail this city?

Maestri: They certainly weren’t here, let me put it that way. What happened was the cavalry didn’t show up.

That wasn’t true everywhere. The cavalry did arrive in St. Bernard Parish, but it wasn’t the U.S. Cavalry, according to the sheriff there.

Pohlman: The Royal Canadian Mounted Police sent a large contingent.

As it turns out, the Canadians Pohlman met weren’t the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They were actually a search and rescue team that had traveled all the way from Vancouver, British Columbia, some 2,800 miles away, and they got there first.

Pohlman: I don’t know how they got here. It may have been on their horses, but they got here.

FEMA crosses wires with local officials
FEMA teams eventually did arrive in stricken areas. But at least initially, in their efforts to organize an effective relief effort, the FEMA workers sometimes crossed wires with local officials. Maestri told us FEMA workers seized diesel fuel needed to run generators for emergency response.

Maestri: When we went to get the fuel, fuel that we had ordered and paid for, bought by Jefferson Parish, that fuel was seized. And we were told that FEMA had taken control of all fuel. And they were seizing that. And we would have to justify— go through a bureaucratic process to get that fuel released to the parish.

Phillips: So your people were turned around?

Maestri: Well, we were turned around and we came to realize that if that’s the kind of game that’s being played, when I sent the fuel truck back and I sent it back with armed sheriff’s deputies, because not on my watch. I was gonna try to make sure that nobody died.

Phillips: A
nd they get the fuel?

Maestri: We got the fuel that time.

Phillips: So you were saying that FEMA actually became an obstruction—

Maestri: That’s correct.

And when his radio communications system was crippled Maestri says he was stunned to learn FEMA was responsible.

Maestri: My technicians reported back to me, “Hey, I know why you’re not communicating. Somebody took down your all antenna.” When we got him up there and he looked he said, “My God.” He said, “This is a FEMA antenna. Somebody disconnected your antenna and put theirs up.”

The federal response drew criticism throughout the Gulf region, not just in Louisiana. Four days after the storm, we spoke with these Mississippi fire and rescue officers who said the federal government was missing in action. Their neighbors were a lot more helpful then FEMA.

One said: “The state of Florida and Alabama just the cities themselves that have come together, Pensacola, Pensacola, have come together to send us, everything you see back here, all this food, all donated by cities.”

Where was FEMA when the people of the Gulf needed it?

Reorganizing FEMA with Homeland Security
Jane Bullock spent 21 years at FEMA, and she says there are reasons the agency didn’t perform better. After 9/11, FEMA was folded into the Department of Homeland Security. That, she says, was a big mistake with serious consequences.

Bullock: FEMA consistently lost resources to other parts of the Department of Homeland Security that were higher priorities. At the State and local level they were told 75 percent of their time had to be spent on terrorism. I think the results are what we’re seeing.

Maestri: The emphasis now is on Homeland Security. And we certainly understand that. You know the money is going to prepare us for an attack against terrorists. But Max Mayfield, the Director of the National Hurricane Center, I think put it most succinctly in an address he gave recently when he said, “You know we can’t be sure when and if a terrorist attack is going to come. But we do know that land falling hurricanes are going to come every year.”

Bullock says something else contributed to what many describe as the agency’s poor performance. The changes at FEMA in recent years, she says, have resulted in hundreds of experienced disaster relief professionals leaving the agency.

Phillips: What went wrong?

Maestri: I don’t know. As I told you earlier, I’m dismayed at what happened. When the delivery doesn’t happen, when the promises aren’t kept, that’s when a catastrophe becomes even greater. It’s compounded.

‘Everyone failed’
The federal government isn’t alone in taking heat for what happened after Katrina hit.

Phillips: How would you rate the state’s performance?

Maestri: I think the state’s, you know the state’s performance would be rated as a C plus.

Bullock: The National Guard is traditionally an asset that the governor uses. I was surprised that the guard in Louisiana wasn’t activated earlier. I think that things would have been dramatically different if the Guard had been mobilized earlier.

And what of the New Orleans mayor who was quick to blame the federal authorities?

Phillips: Who failed these people?

Nagin: Everybody, everybody.

Phillips: Yourself included?

Nagin: I could have done things better.

Phillips: What would you have done differently?

Nagin: Scream louder … I should have screamed louder.

As the water begins recede, the question remains, what next? How do you rebuild an entire city? There will be other storms. How do we prevent them from doing this kind of damage again? And what changes will have to be made on local, state and federal agencies so that the break downs that happened here never happen again

It may take years to fully understand what went wrong—and just as long to figure out how to correct the problems. But some of the people involved in the tragedy of New Orleans have already begun to think about ways to prevent another Katrina.

At the head of the list is Mayor Ray Nagin.

Nagin: I’ll put it to you this way. This process has probably taught the nation what not to do. It is bigger than one agency. It’s bigger than one person, or two people or whatever. We have a system of responding to disasters that is designed way back–that is not modern enough to deal with what we are dealing with. There is no organizational structure — no clear lines of authority.

Major James Pohlman, of the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Department thinks a good start would be to upgrade communication lines.

Pohlman: You can’t tell me that somehow, someway, they can’t deliver some type of communication system and set it up on the levee system, the driest area you can find and say, okay we’re here, what do you need? And radio that out and get the resources in. I think we could have had bigger resources in the beginning if we’d had better communications.

The head of the National Hurricane Center has this advice:

Mayfield: We’ve said for years that the battle against a hurricane is won not during the hurricane season but outside the season. And we’ve always urged, you know, individuals and families an businesses and communities to develop their own hurricane plan. They need to have that plan in place before the hurricane season gets here.

And when New Orleans finally rebuilds, will there be a way to ultimately protect the city if there is another storm like Katrina?

Al Naomi, from the Army Corps of Engineers thinks it may be tough, but it’s do-able.

Naomi: I think we can protect this city against a Category Five storm, but it is going to take a lot of money and some effort. But it is certainly achievable and the money is nowhere near what it is costing to clean up this city right now. So, a $2 billion to $3 billion system to protect the city from a Category 5 is a small investment.

Nagin: Look man, this my mission now. I’m gonna make sure that this never happens again ever in the history of this country If I have to lobby Congress every day I am going to do it.

Interviewed in this special report
— Jane Bullock: a former senior official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and a 21-year veteran of disaster relief operations.
— Walter Maestri: director of emergency management in Jefferson parish just outside the city of New Orleans. He also participated in “Hurricane Pam” drill.
— Max Mayfield: director of hurricane center in Miami. The center knew that Katrina was going to be an intense hurricane.
— Ray Nagin: New Orleans mayor
— Al Naomi: member of the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the levees
— Marc Schleifstein: a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In June 2002, he co-authored what can only be called a prophetic five-part front page series warning that a direct hit on New Orleans by a major hurricane was inevitable.
— Ivor van Heerden: hurricane expert from Louisiana State University. He was running computer models to predict the possible damage.

© 2005 MSNBC Interactive – http://msnbc.msn.com/id/9269337/

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