Around the corner, Ronnie Brown, 63, a retired construction worker, sat on his sister’s porch, enjoying the afternoon. He fled New Orleans in advance of Katrina, but not this time. “Ain’t goin’ nowhere,” he said. “This one ain’t so bad.”
That kind of nonchalance worries the officials who run this city and surrounding parishes, and they spent much of the day warning about dire possibilities, from trees falling on people who step outside to gauge the wind to pedestrians splashing through deep water only to slip down uncovered manholes and drown. The warnings prompted some to pile bottled water and snack food into shopping carts.
But it was also a day to shrug and laugh at the sky, a mood that was summed up on a sidewalk sign outside the Howlin’ Wolf Den, a pub in the Warehouse District. It read “Isaac Who?”
That scene was a far cry from 2005, when Katrina devastated New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast, leaving nearly 2,000 people dead and exposing the federal government’s abysmal response to the crisis.
Katrina’s storm surge overwhelmed the poorly designed and maintained levee system and left the city flooded and isolated.
The enduring images of the disaster — people clinging to rooftops, desperate masses filling the Superdome and the convention center, the dead floating in the streets — tarnished the Bush presidency.
The tragedy led to a massive reconstruction effort and sparked major changes within FEMA. Fugate, who served as Florida’s top emergency management official when Jeb Bush (R) was governor, assumed control of the agency in 2009 and has taken advantage of congressional changes that expanded the agency’s budget and authorized early deployment of resources and manpower.
These efforts — and Fugate’s stewardship — have earned broad bipartisan praise, most notably from some of Obama’s loudest GOP critics, including Gov. Bobby Jindal (La.) and former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour.
Last week, the agency sent officials to Louisiana to begin coordinating storm response efforts with local officials, and Fugate said Monday that other teams have arrived in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. In addition, the agency has deployed large supplies of bottled water, food, infant formula and other goods along the storm’s projected path.
Fugate and Knabb also briefed Obama on the situation Monday afternoon. Afterward, Obama convened a call with the governors of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as the mayor of New Orleans, assuring them that they would have any resources they need, according to the White House.
“The biggest lesson we’ve learned is we have to work together as a team at the state and local and federal level,” Fugate said Monday.
But he added that the lessons learned by government officials from Katrina would mean little if residents don’t also prepare for the worst. “Our concern is still individual responsibility and preparedness,” he said. “When those evacuation orders are issued, we need people to heed them and move to higher ground.”
Fugate said that while so much attention, understandably, has focused on New Orleans and the legacy of Katrina, a more immediate danger exists in rural and coastal communities unprotected by the levee system. “I know that Katrina is first and foremost on everybody's mind,” Fugate said. “But I think people need to understand this is not a New Orleans storm; this is a Gulf Coast storm.”
In Tampa, Republican organizers briefly opened their party’s convention on Monday but mostly scrapped the day’s schedule and scrambled to condense the raucous four-day affair into a more subdued three-day event.
It wasn’t the first time that a late-summer hurricane had caused trouble for the GOP gathering. In 2008, presidential nominee John McCain was forced to postpone the start of the party’s convention in Minnesota when Hurricane Gustav threatened to wreak havoc on the Louisiana coast.
Dennis reported from Washington. Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.