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The Steady Buildup to a City's Chaos

An Army truck of survivors makes room for one more evacuee. The floodwater was deemed a health hazard.
An Army truck of survivors makes room for one more evacuee. The floodwater was deemed a health hazard. (By Mario Tama -- Getty Images)

The massive rescue effort that resulted was a fugue of improvisation, by fleets of small boats that set sail off highway underpasses and angry airport directors and daredevil helicopter pilots. Tens of thousands were saved as the city swamped; they were plucked from rooftops and bused, eventually, out of the disaster zone.

But it was an infuriating time of challenge when government seemed unable to meet its basic compact with its citizens. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, an entirely new Department of Homeland Security had been created, charged with doing better the next time, whether the crisis was another terrorist attack or not. Its new plan for safeguarding the nation, unveiled just this year, clearly spelled out the need to take charge in assisting state and local governments sure to be "overwhelmed" by a cataclysmic event.

Instead, confusion reigned at every level of officialdom, according to dozens of interviews with participants in Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington. "No one had access. . . . No one had communication. . . . Nobody knew where the people were," recalled Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, whose department did not declare the Gulf Coast a public health emergency until two days after the storm.

Despite pleas by Bush administration officials to refrain from "the blame game," mutual recriminations among officeholders began even before New Orleans's trapped residents had been rescued. The White House secretly debated federalizing authority in a city under the control of a Democratic mayor and governor, and critics in both parties assailed FEMA and raised questions about President Bush.

That Friday, as Maestri prepared for the Big One, he had known that his region's survival would depend on the federal response. After Hurricane Pam, FEMA officials had concluded that local authorities might be on their own for 48 or even 60 hours after a real storm, but they had assured Maestri that the cavalry would swoop in after that, and take care of the region's needs.

"Like a fool, I believed them," Maestri said last week.

Friday, Aug. 26

'Why aren't we treating this as a bigger emergency?'

At 5 a.m., Hurricane Katrina entered the Gulf of Mexico with the Louisiana coastline in its sights. In Elmwood, La., dozens of federal, state and local disaster officials were meeting to discuss storm response, but their topic was Tropical Storm Cindy, which had come ashore on July 5. While leaders of Louisiana's Office of Homeland Security and the National Guard tracked Katrina with a handheld device, local emergency managers learned how they could submit claims for Cindy's relatively modest damage.

"Shouldn't we just apply for Katrina money now?" quipped Jim Baker, operations superintendent for the East Jefferson Levee District.

As the storm track hooked toward New Orleans, the disaster officials began passing the handheld device around the room. It was becoming clear that Katrina was no joking matter. But it was already getting late to be getting serious.

After the Hurricane Pam drill, disaster planners had concluded that evacuating New Orleans could take as long as 72 hours before a storm's landfall. By midday Friday, it was 66 hours before Katrina would end up hitting, and the threat was just starting to sink in. "With this storm, people should have evacuated no later than Friday," said a senior official in a neighboring state. "Anything after that was very risky."

In Washington, the cumbersome machinery of catastrophe began to crank up.

At the Department of Homeland Security, the 180,000-employee bureaucracy created after the Sept. 11 attacks, that meant convening the Interagency Incident Management Group. About 20 federal agencies had seats at the table, from the State Department to the Veterans Affairs Department.

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