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Reporters Had Predicted a Hurricane Disaster

It's an emotional time for a journalist who wrote in 2002 about a city's vulnerability.

December 29, 2005|James Rainey

NEW ORLEANS — More than three years before Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, newspaper reporters Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid wrote a series that predicted what would happen when the city took a direct hit from a major hurricane.

"Hundreds of thousands would be left homeless and it would take months to dry out the area and begin to make it livable," one of the stories in the New Orleans Times-Picayune said. "But there wouldn't be much for residents to come home to. The local economy would be in ruins."

The 2002 series, "Washing Away," foretold mass deaths, stranded residents, failed evacuation plans and enormous obstacles to rebuilding.

Schleifstein, a 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner for his part in a project on threats to the world's fisheries and an environmental specialist, pushed for years to get his paper to write about the potential for disaster. Some of his colleagues said he was an alarmist. One predicted the hurricane project would amount to nothing more than "disaster porn."

Hurricane Katrina has hardly felt like a vindication, though. Schleifstein's neighborhood south of Lake Pontchartrain went under more than 10 feet of water. His once-comfortable home remains like so many others -- a muddy and mold-ruined hulk.

Like most of his colleagues, the 55-year-old has had little time off in the last four months covering "the story of a lifetime." Next, he and McQuaid, who is based in Washington, plan to write a book about Katrina.

The soft-spoken journalist, known by his colleagues as "Schleffy," has trouble assessing his emotions now.

"In some ways I'm angry," Schleifstein said. "We all didn't do enough. I didn't do enough. The newspaper didn't do enough. The city definitely didn't do enough.... As much as a lot of people listened, a lot of people didn't listen or pay attention to what could happen."

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-- James Rainey

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