Fear in the Air
In Post-Katrina New Orleans, The Next Hurricane Already Has A Million Eyes

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 28, 2006

NEW ORLEANS Around here, evil has a name: Hurricane Season. And it has a start date: June 1.

Though it seems like only yesterday that Hurricane Katrina tore through the area -- causing widespread flooding that caused evacuation that caused displacement and chaos and tragedy -- this week it starts all over again. But the panic started weeks ago: "There is not a lot of time," newly reelected Mayor C. Ray Nagin said during one of the campaign debates. "Hurricane season's going to start June 1, and we need to be ready."

He added, "I think we are."

There are lots of New Orleanians who don't agree with the mayor. It's not that they have proof to the contrary; it's just that they don't feel prepared. It's that once-flooded, twice-shy feeling they can't shake. And since the hurricane season traditionally kicks off on June 1 and lasts through November, the ominousness of the possible can be overwhelming.

Sure, there is hurricane anxiety every year in the hearts of coastal dwellers, but this time in this place it's especially powerful and poignant. It's in the headlines, on the television and it affects the way New Orleanians look at the world around them: Will this levee break? Will that street flood? What are the plans for evacuation?

The first day of June looms like the Sword of Damocles over New Orleans. It's a doomsday date that preys on the city's psyche.

"I'm concerned about the levees," says Anita Morgan. She is standing on Tennessee Street in the Lower Ninth Ward just a few blocks from where the levees along the Industrial Canal failed. Morgan, 40, has brought her father, Oliver, back to see the flooded-out family home for the first time since the hurricane struck in August. "It's too soon for things to be back the way they're supposed to be."

A local legend, Oliver Morgan, 73, recorded the hit rock-and-roll song "Who Shot the La La?" in the early 1960s. Morgan used to sit on his porch and wave to passersby who shouted: "Who shot the La La?!"

Anita says, "That was my daddy's life. It's gone now." The porch looks like a pile of firewood.

The Morgans -- five generations' worth -- evacuated as Katrina approached. First they moved into a downtown hotel. Then they were told to leave as the water rose and they drove 22 hours to Atlanta. "I was gone for about seven months," Anita says. "I was terribly homesick. Atlanta is a very progressive city, but I just couldn't give up on New Orleans."

Her father, on the other hand, is living in a condo complex for senior citizens in Georgia. Back for a few days, he motions toward his collapsed wood frame house, which was moved 10 feet or so by floodwaters into his neighbor's driveway. There is not much to say: The house is beyond repair. The house that was next door is now in the middle of the street.

"I told my fiance, 'As soon as they say to evacuate, I'm gone,' " says Anita, who has moved to another neighborhood on higher ground. "We are more prepared this time. But if there's another hurricane as big as Katrina and we have to evacuate, we won't come back."

The worst part is "not knowing," says psychotherapist Arthur Samuels, who runs the Stress Treatment Center of New Orleans out of a French Quarter condominium. Samuels, 80, has been practicing for 40 years. "I just finished seeing a patient who lost her home. She's trying to build it back herself."

He says the woman, who lives in nearby St. Bernard Parish, is working frantically to finish up by the start of hurricane season, but she can't find any carpenters or plumbers to help her. She is doing much of the construction herself. "The work is hard," Samuels says, "and she is surrounded by flies. Flies just inundate the area."

She comes to Samuels for relaxation techniques.

One 45-year-old patient "came in totally paralyzed with fear and depression because he lost everything," the therapist says. "He could hardly get out of bed for our sessions."

Many people are dreaming about levees breaking and streets flooding, he says. One older lady "got caught up in the absolute worst of it, water up to her neck, going to the Superdome. She has repeated nightmares about the flood."

People are drinking and using drugs -- legal and illegal -- more. He tells them they need concrete evacuation plans.

He is seeing many more patients this year than ever, and most of them are stressed out by hurricane season -- the last one and the next. "People are very indecisive," he says, about whether to rebuild, whether to look for a job, whether to stay in the New Orleans area. Many New Orleanians believe that mandatory evacuations may become commonplace and they are skittish about leaving their property, their jobs, their friends again.

"It's the fear of the unknown mixed with the destruction of what's familiar," Samuels says. "We're in a vortex of ever-accelerating change in our culture. An emergency accelerates that change even more. So what's secure and familiar to us is," he looks for the right word, "gone."

There is a countdown-to-hurricane-season clock on Margaret Saizan's Hurricane Katrina blog, Hurricane-katrina.org. "I think the leaders are much more prepared and ready this year," Saizan says from her home in Baton Rouge. "People who have been impacted are not prepared."

There are still so many folks out of work and in temporary housing, she says. And the complexity and magnitude of the problems are so immense. "Emotionally, I know we are not ready. We are battle-worn."

But is there genuine cause for concern as June 1 approaches? Questions hang like thunderheads. How safe are the levees? Is the communication system viable? Is there an improved evacuation plan? And what about health-care facilities? And security?

A report by a team of investigative scientists released this month suggests that the levees are still vulnerable. However, Gary Rauber of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says, "They actually are going to be in probably a little better shape than last year." He says that some of the floodwalls along the Industrial Canal that had sunk over time have even been built up higher than pre-Katrina levels. He also believes that the floodwalls along other canals will not present a problem because the storm surge will be thwarted by gates on the canals.

The only aspects of the Corps system that will not be quite ready by June 1, Rauber says, are the gates -- and temporary pumps -- on those canals. "We've got material on hand to dam off the canals in an emergency," Rauber says.

The communications system is "pathetic," says attorney Steve Sabludowsky, founder of the Louisiana newsletter BayouBuzz. Sabludowsky was tapped recently by the City of New Orleans to draft legislation addressing the city's wireless Internet options post-Katrina. In New Orleans and the surrounding area, the communications system -- telephones, police radios, computers -- was out for weeks. Sabludowsky hopes to have new solutions in place by June 1, but so far, he says, it is an uphill climb. "It is the number one safety and security issue," he says. "If you cannot communicate with police or first responders or your family or hotels or FEMA or the Red Cross, then you might as well forget it."

Earlier this month, Nagin unveiled the city's revised evacuation plan based on lessons learned from Katrina. The course of action relies on buses and trains to move people out of harm's way quickly. The mayor's plan gets people out of the city but does not solve the problem of where to take them.

New Orleans must also coordinate with other nearby areas that will be evacuating during dangerous storms. In St. Bernard Parish, some 20,000 residents have returned since Katrina; many of those live in more than 6,000 FEMA trailers.

Dottie Thomas stays in one of them with her 19-year-old son, Derek. Last time around, the Thomases had a harrowing evacuation, strapping on life jackets and swimming to the second floor of a neighbor's house. Rescue workers from the fire department picked them up in boats and took them to a sugar refinery. They were shuffled around from Chalmette to Algiers. Then they went to Kenner, where the police, holding guns, said they didn't want the buses to stop. The Thomases' bus was rerouted to Houston, then to Oklahoma City.

They stayed on an Army base until they were flown to Jackson, Miss., then they went to Hattiesburg and back to Slidell and Kenner before returning to their little devastated home on LeBeau Street in Arabi, where they have lived for 20 years. Their one-bedroom white Cavalier trailer sits in the driveway.

"I haven't slept a full night since the storm," Thomas says. She doesn't want to evacuate again, for fear that she might wind up in a similar hellish situation. "I'm not one to leave," she says, lighting a cigarette. "But if they tell us to get out of the trailer, we have no choice."

Leslie Burger, president-elect of the American Library Association, is concerned about health-care facilities and security. Her group is holding its annual convention in New Orleans on June 22-28. The ALA gathering, which is expecting about 20,000 members, will be the first large convention in the city since Katrina.

Plans were made years ago, says Burger, director of the Princeton, N.J., public library. The librarians have raised $300,000 for Gulf Coast libraries that were damaged by hurricanes and, for the first time, they have penciled in a couple of community-service days during their convention. More than 900 people have signed up.

New Orleans is caught in a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Conventions depend on the city's vitality; the city depends on conventions for its vitality. The ALA will pump $20 million into the local economy, Burger says.

Finding groups that will come during hurricane season may be difficult. A few other large conventions will be here in the next couple of months, says Jeff Anding of the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship will bring 5,000 or so people to town in July, and the American Psychological Association is meeting in August, when hurricane season will be in full swing.

So are there liable to be more bad storms this year? Anything out of the ordinary?

"In weather we never say never," says Michael Koziara of the National Weather Service Forecast Office in nearby Slidell. "Odd things happen."

On this recent morning, Koziara, a bearded professorial guy who, like TV weatherpeople, sometimes seems to be looking slightly offstage as he talks to you, is watching on three side-by-side Samsung SyncMaster computer monitors as a cold front moves in from the west, bringing violent thunderstorms and lightning toward New Orleans.

This is the eye of the storm-watching system in southeast Louisiana. There are about 45 people in this cubicle-and-computer office. The Weather Service shares space with the Lower Mississippi River Valley Forecast Center. During the cooler months, Gulf Coast weather is pretty much controlled by westerly winds, Koziara explains. As the sun's arc over the Earth rises in the sky and days grow warmer, systems from the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea take over. That's where most of the hurricane trouble comes from. When it forms, the first Atlantic tropical storm of 2006 will be named Alberto.

Meteorologist William Gray of Colorado State University predicts that there is a 47 percent chance that a major storm will hit the Gulf Coast this season. Last century the average was 30 percent. Last year Gray predicted a 41 percent chance of a major Gulf Coast hurricane.

Koziara says he doesn't know if Gray's latest predictions will come true. He's taking no chances. He and his family have an evacuation plan. "Any tropical cyclone in our area is not good." Koziara says. "It really doesn't matter what the outlook is for year to year. All you need is one direct strike from a major hurricane and . . . "

He doesn't finish his sentence. But anyone who lived through Katrina knows exactly what he's talking about.

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