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Shockingly unprepared

September 02, 2005

THE COUNTLESS QUESTIONS about the unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf states are all variations on a simple theme: This disaster was all but scripted; why wasn't the response?

News reports from the region have shown the situation getting worse, not better.

This inability to regain control, or at least to rally against the disaster, has shocked the country's sense of itself. Predictably, recriminations mounted Thursday, even as federal officials delivered more aid. State and local officials in Louisiana were particularly critical of the response from Washington, complaining that the feds were slow to provide the help needed to feed and evacuate survivors and halt criminals.

Defenders of the Bush administration said it was doing everything it could. "They're facing problems that nobody could foresee: breaking of the levees and the whole dome thing over in New Orleans coming apart," former President George H.W. Bush said Thursday on CNN. "People couldn't foresee that."

In fact, emergency planners have been thinking about a catastrophic levee breach for years. Many saw it as an inevitable consequence of a high-powered hurricane such as Katrina hitting the city. And in early 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that one of the three most likely disasters to strike the U.S. was a catastrophic flood triggered by a hurricane hitting New Orleans. (The other two: a terrorist attack on New York and a major earthquake in San Francisco.)

It's certainly true that by the time forecasters knew that Katrina was a threat, it was too late to shore up the levees. And by the time they knew Katrina was going to come ashore near New Orleans, there was not enough time to evacuate the city completely.

Still, much of what happened this week in New Orleans had been foreseen by federal and state emergency planners, as the city's newspaper, the Times-Picayune, laid out extensively three years ago. "Survivors will end up trapped on roofs, in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water, with no means of escape and little food or fresh water, perhaps for several days," one story predicted with eerie accuracy.

That's why the complaints from Louisiana about the official response are so troubling. Why did it take so long to evacuate the poor, the elderly and the tourists unlucky enough to be caught with no way out of town? Where was the food and water? Why were the police left to choose between rescuing people from the floods and saving them from predators?

Critics of the administration, including former FEMA officials, say Washington's focus since late 2001 on potential terrorist targets has come at the expense of its ability to respond to natural disasters in other parts of the country. FEMA no longer helps prepare communities for disasters -- it just responds to them. Other critics have pointed out that the administration diverted money from a levee project in New Orleans to fund priorities within the Department of Homeland Security.

One lesson of Hurricane Katrina, though, is that preparedness and response go hand in hand, whether the disaster is natural or man-made. Washington's response to Katrina is likely to gear up notably in the days to come, but the question of why it took so long will linger longer than the floodwaters.

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