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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)

Nagin said that by daybreak, he might have to order the first mandatory evacuation in New Orleans history, although his staff was still checking whether that would pose liability problems for the city. Nagin did not tell everyone to leave immediately, because the regional plan called for the suburbs to empty out first, but he did urge residents in particularly low-lying areas to "start moving -- right now, as a matter of fact." He said the Superdome would be open as a shelter of last resort, but essentially he told tourists stranded in the Big Easy that they were out of luck.

"The only thing I can say to them is I hope they have a hotel room, and it's a least on the third floor and up," Nagin said. "Unfortunately, unless they can rent a car to get out of town, which I doubt they can at this point, they're probably in the position of riding the storm out."

In fact, while the last regularly scheduled train out of town had left a few hours earlier, Amtrak had decided to run a "dead-head" train that evening to move equipment out of the city. It was headed for high ground in Macomb, Miss., and it had room for several hundred passengers. "We offered the city the opportunity to take evacuees out of harm's way," said Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black. "The city declined."

So the ghost train left New Orleans at 8:30 p.m., with no passengers on board.

That night, Mayfield picked up his phone again, to make sure Govs. Blanco and Barbour understood the potential for disaster. "I wanted to be able to go to sleep that night," he said. He told Barbour that Katrina had the potential to be a "Camille-like storm," referring to the August 1969 hurricane with 200-mph winds, and warned Blanco that this one would be a "big, big deal." Blanco was still unsure that Nagin fully understood, and urged Mayfield to call him personally.

"I told him, 'This is going to be a defining moment for a lot of people,' " Mayfield recalled.

Sunday, Aug. 28

'We sat here for five days waiting. Nothing!'

"We're facing the storm most of us have feared," Nagin told an early-morning news conference, the governor at his side. Katrina was now a Category 5 hurricane, set to make landfall overnight.

Minutes earlier, Blanco had been pulled out to take a call from the president, pressed into service by FEMA's Brown to urge a mandatory evacuation. Blanco told him that's just what the mayor would order.

Nagin also announced that the city had set up 10 refuges of last resort, and promised that public buses would pick up stragglers in a dozen locations to take them to the Superdome and other shelters.

But he never mentioned the numbers that had haunted experts for years, the estimated 100,000 city residents without their own transportation. And he never mentioned that the state's comprehensive disaster plan, written in 2000 and posted on a state Web site, called for buses to take people out of the city once the governor declared a state of emergency.

In reality, Nagin's advisers never intended to follow that plan -- and knew many residents would stay behind. "We always knew we did not have the means to evacuate the city," said Terry Ebbert, the sharp-tongued city director of emergency management.

At 10 a.m., in case there were still any doubters, the National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning with apocalyptic predictions: "Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer . . . At least one-half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure. . . . Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards."

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