New Orleans Braces For Isaac

Isaac is headed toward the Gulf Coast, and Louisiana's governor has declared a state of emergency. The storm is threatening to hit New Orleans as the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches. Host Michel Martin speaks with Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed of Homeland Security in New Orleans, about how they're preparing the city for the storm.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Later, two views of single life. We'll hear from a group of single moms who talk about how they balance work and family, and we'll hear from single professionals who say they want more life balance even if they don't have families. Those conversations are coming up.

But first, we turn to New Orleans, which is preparing for the oncoming storm, Isaac. It's expected to make landfall tonight or early Wednesday morning. And, coincidentally, the storm is coming almost seven years to the day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. President Obama talked about this this morning from the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now's not the time to tempt fate. Now's not the time to dismiss official warnings. You need to take this seriously.

MARTIN: We wanted to find out just what New Orleans is doing to prepare. So earlier, we spoke with Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Sneed. He's the director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in New Orleans, and we caught up with him in his office there.

Lieutenant Colonel Sneed, welcome to the program. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL JERRY SNEED: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What preparations are you making?

SNEED: Well, our preparations have been in the planning time. Ever since Katrina, we learned some valuable lessons from Katrina, and all our Department of Public Safety and all our department heads work very closely together to ensure things are in place. We work closely with our state and federal agencies to make sure everything we have works for an event like this. So we've been planning, working and ensuring that we can protect our citizens the best possible during this event, or even a stronger hurricane.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that New Orleans is currently in a state of emergency. Is that right?

SNEED: That is correct.

MARTIN: And what exactly does that mean?

SNEED: (unintelligible) emergency.

MARTIN: What does that mean?

SNEED: When you declare an emergency, it frees up some things you can do. You have a little more freedom to do certain things. You don't have to ask a lot of questions, and you make things happen much quicker. So it's just a position we get ourselves in during something like this so that we can freely take care of our systems quicker.

MARTIN: What is the major concern? Is it high winds, or is it the flooding? And I do want to recall for people who may not remember this, that it really - it wasn't Katrina, per se - the hurricane, per se, that was the biggest challenge for New Orleans. It was the flooding after the levees gave way. That's right, isn't it? So what's the biggest...

SNEED: That's correct.

...concern now?

Katrina was - the levees failed, and that caused our flooding. What we're concerned with for this storm here is the amount of rain they're predicting, anywhere from 16 to 20 inches we may get over a 24-hour period. We live in a bowl in New Orleans, and we have a pumping system to pump the water out. But our system can only hold an inch an hour for the first hour, a half an inch an hour thereafter.

So if we get a huge deluge of water in a short period of time, we're going to have some street flooding in low-lying areas and so forth, and it just takes a while for our pumps to get it all out. So our biggest concern is the amount of rain we get, and how quickly we get it.

MARTIN: Now, as I understand it, some of the lower-lying areas surrounding New Orleans have been evacuated. But is there an evacuation plan for the city, and what would trigger that?

SNEED: No. From the looks of this storm, we did not think it merited a mandatory evacuation. The areas outside of our levee of protection - we talked to those citizens yesterday. The mayor gave them the information they needed to make an intelligent decision, and encouraged them to get into the levee system or move. Some of those people have done that. Some have decided to stay where they're at. We would normally do a mandatory evacuation for a category three or higher storm.

MARTIN: And I'm sure you're sick of the question, but you have to ask: Do you have confidence in the levees? And if so, why?

SNEED: I have the utmost confidence. I know the Corps of Engineers takes a beating a lot, but the corps has done a wonderful job and, thanks to the federal government, your taxpaying dollars have given them the money they needed to give us a system that fully protects us. So we have the utmost confidence that the levees will - are done the right way, and will hold back anything we get. So, yes, I have the utmost confidence, and I think our citizens have the confidence in the corps, also. They've done a wonderful job since Katrina.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Sneed. He's the director of Homeland Security in New Orleans. He's also deputy mayor. We're talking about Isaac, which is headed toward New Orleans and is expected to hit sometime tonight.

Do you mind if I ask - it's kind of a - I don't know how comfortable you feel with the question. But I'm curious about how people feel in the wake of - first of all, you know, anniversaries sometimes bring up...

SNEED: Yes.

MARTIN: ...feelings. Right?

SNEED: Yes.

MARTIN: And the fact is, you know, the coincidence of this being right at the same time Hurricane Katrina hit seven years ago, all that the city endured with that, and do you have a sense that people feel anxiety, fear? Or what do you think people are feeling at a time like this? I don't want to put words in your mouth.

SNEED: I have a problem speaking for all the citizens of New Orleans.

MARTIN: Of course. Understood.

SNEED: I do think there are clearly some people that are remembering back to Katrina, and it does bring a heightened sense of anxiety to some. But, again, I think it also shows that we've come a long way since Katrina. We've learned some valuable lessons. Mayor Landrieu does a wonderful job in ensuring that all the agencies work together as civil servants to take care of our citizens.

So, hopefully, anxiety is reduced by an effective government that is here and with a proper levee system to take care of them better. Again, this is not a Katrina type of storm, either. I think - I guess the date coming back doesn't help any, but it's not a Katrina issue. But I think there are some people that do have some concerns. Yes.

MARTIN: What do you do during a storm like this?

SNEED: I run the Emergency Operations Center. I am also the deputy mayor for public safety. So all police, fire, EMS falls under me. During the emergency, I run the Emergency Operations Center that coordinates response and kind of maneuvers things where they need to be. So we stay pretty busy.

MARTIN: You stay at a command center or...

SNEED: Right.

MARTIN: And where is that?

SNEED: Our emergency operations center is on the ninth floor of City Hall. It's a 10,000 square foot area with all the backup generators, backup phones, backup TVs, a fully operational, state-of-the-art center that has come online since - actually, after Gustav is when we actually got this center up and operational. So it's adequate. In fact, we think it's one of the better ones, and we can fight the war from here.

MARTIN: And do you mind if I ask? What do most city officials' families do at a time like this, when you are going to be 24/7 for the foreseeable future? What does your family do? What does the mayor's family do? What do other city officials' families - police officers, first responders, for example - what do they do? What do their families do?

SNEED: Before hurricane season, all essential personnel are told and forced to have a plan for their families. If they want to evacuate their families out, they have to ensure their family's leave on their own prior to the event. The only ones that stay in the city and use our facilities are key and essential personnel. Families, if they evacuate, they evacuate on their own. If they decide to stay, they stay in their homes by themselves and - while we do 24-hour operations doing our jobs. So everybody has to have a plan for their own families to take care of them to ensure their safety.

And let's face it. If you have a good plan and you know your family is safe, then you don't have to worry about where they are and you can do your job more effectively and you can focus on your job instead of worrying about your family. So that's another lesson we learned from Katrina, and we do it much better now.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, is there anything that you would want people outside of the area to be thinking about or doing right now to support you in this?

SNEED: Again, pray. I believe in that. We're planning for the worst, hoping for the best. And just - I think they can be reassured that the city's come a long way. We are better prepared. And so they shouldn't feel that they can't come visit the city of New Orleans any time they want.

MARTIN: Well, our thoughts will be with you. Good luck.

SNEED: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Sneed is the director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in New Orleans. He's also deputy mayor, and he was kind enough to join us from his office in New Orleans. Thank you so much, Lieutenant Colonel.

SNEED: Thank you.

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