My very first post on Katrina was at 7am on last Sunday morning, when I first saw that the storm was still on track to hit New Orleans and was now a category 5 hurricane.
That post had a link to an NPR story from last year about the possible consequences of such a storm, a story that has proven to be all too accurate.
Those of you who aren’t locals are fairly familiar with Walter Maestri now. He was the first Jefferson Parish official I heard crying on the radio a few days ago (Aaron Broussard yesterday was the second). Refresh your memory with what he told NPR last year, and keep this in mind whenever you hear a federal official say that the Katrina disaster was unexpected.
And just across the Mississippi River, Walter Maestri is struggling to help New Orleans prepare. Maestri is the czar of public emergencies in Jefferson Parish (that’s the county that sprawls across a third of the metropolitan area). He points to a map of the region on the wall of his command post.
“A couple of days ago,” explains Maestri, “We actually had an exercise where we brought a fictitious Category Five Hurricane into the metropolitan area.”
The map is covered with arrows and swirls in erasable marker. They show how the fictitious hurricane crossed Key West and then smacked into New Orleans.
When the computer models showed Maestri what would happen next, he wrote big letters on the map, all in capitals.
“KYAGB—kiss your ass good bye,” reads Maestri.
“Because,” says Maestri, “anyone who was here when that storm came across was gone—it was body-bag time. We think 40,000 people could lose their lives in the metropolitan area.”
And some scientists say that figure is conservative. People have known for centuries that New Orleans is a risky spot — the biggest river in North America wraps around it; and most of the land is below sea level. But researchers say they’ve been learning just how grave the problem is, only in the last few years. And they say the city and the nation aren’t prepared to handle it.
It was their job to know. But FEMA, Chertoff, Brown, Bush…they didn’t know. They didn’t do their jobs. They just didn’t.