After Katrina, New Fear Along Coast

Jesse Reed escaped the rising waters after Hurricane Katrina last year in his bass boat. He and his wife, Mary Ann, are now living in a trailer.
Jesse Reed escaped the rising waters after Hurricane Katrina last year in his bass boat. He and his wife, Mary Ann, are now living in a trailer. (By Peter Whoriskey -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

VIOLET, La. -- When the floodwaters of Katrina reached the second floor of his home, Jesse Reed decided it was time to flee. He grabbed a shotgun, climbed onto the roof from a second-floor dormer window and jumped into his bass boat, which he kept nearby just for that purpose.

The 51-year-old, an outdoorsman and a plumber by trade, was proud of having ridden out previous storms with a certain woodsy elan.

Now, he says, "I wouldn't stay here for a goddarn hard rain."

All along the coast of the southeastern United States, even in those places untouched by its rage, Hurricane Katrina has obliterated long-held certitudes. Last year's destructive storm eroded the almost innate self-confidence of residents who once viewed hurricanes as tempests that could be weathered, not unimaginable catastrophes.

On the verge of what forecasters say will be a "very active" hurricane season, the result is a hovering fear. The wariness is a key but often unspoken cause for the slow recovery in towns wrecked last year -- residents are too afraid to return -- and a source of widespread anxiety everywhere else along the southeast coast.

Tony Fernandez, a sheriff's office official for St. Bernard Parish here, said that throughout the community there is a new reverence for "nature's strength and fury."

"Before we were all like doubting Thomases -- we had to see it," he said, shrugging. "Now we saw it."

The new faith is pervasive. Since Katrina, emergency managers from Houston to Biloxi, Miss., to Charleston, S.C., have chucked or revised evacuation plans that were long thought to have been adequate.

Dillard University in New Orleans has moved the start of classes from mid-August to late September to miss most of hurricane season. Some Florida residents have banded together to buy enormous generators capable of running entire households.

And civil engineers from around the country are similarly gripped by a new sense of the perils. They have reported widespread and long-standing flaws in the New Orleans levees, called for investigations into every levee in the United States and identified flaws in the dike that keeps Lake Okeechobee from overflowing South Florida.

"Katrina was a defining experience for many people, and that's no less true for engineers," said Steven G. Vick, a Colorado engineer and one of the investigators who reported that the Lake Okeechobee dike is unsafe. The news spurred state leaders this month to create an evacuation plan for thousands of nearby residents who had long thought there was nothing to fear.

"You just don't do engineering in the same way after you've seen New Orleans. You don't take it as an abstraction, lines on a map," he said. "You recognize that you're dealing with people's lives."

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