Is Government Ready for Hurricane Season? Last year, Hurricane Katrina broke levees, crippled communications, stalled transportation and almost drowned a major city. Next week, the new Atlantic hurricane season begins. Are city, county, parish, state and federal authorities ready?
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Is Government Ready for Hurricane Season?

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Is Government Ready for Hurricane Season?

Is Government Ready for Hurricane Season?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION, broadcasting live today from Le Chat Noir nightclub in New Orleans, Louisiana.

(Soundbite of applause)

I'm Neal Conan. Hurricane season is nothing new for the Gulf States, but this year will be different. After the horrific damage from Katrina and Rita last year, many parts of this area are exceptionally vulnerable to storm damage. People everywhere around here look nervously at their levees and floodgates and wonder.

After the failures at all levels of government last year, city, county, parish, state, and federal authorities test new response plans and stockpile food and water and ice and fuel and hope that they've done enough this time. And no one has failed to notice forecasts that the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season could be as active as last year's.

Operational issues include evacuation - especially from poorer areas - chain of command, telecommunications, electrical power, transportation, sewage, pumps, water, traffic, and so on. More broadly, the crisis that began when Katrina roared out of the Gulf last August raised fundamental questions about race and class, politics and policy, reconstruction and corruption.

People worry about Katrina fatigue, that the rest of the country no longer understands that the crisis continues. They worry about the political will to institute sometimes expensive and sometimes unpopular changes. The New Orleans Times-Picayune shared the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in reporting on these issues in 2006. We've invited the paper's top editor to be with us today.

And, of course, we want to hear from you. Whether you're here in the audience or listening across the country, what are you most concerned about: levees, evacuation routes, lessons learned, or maybe not? Join the conversation. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

Let me add that the Times-Picayune shared that Pulitzer with another newspaper, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi. We've invited their editor Kate Magandy to be with us today, but breaking news prevented her - at the last minute -from joining us. She will be with us by phone a few minutes later.

Also later in the program, when we - we simply can't leave New Orleans without hearing some jazz. The Jordan Family joins us here at Le Chat Noir, but let me first introduce James Amoss, managing editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. And thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JIM AMOSS (Managing Editor, New Orleans Times-Picayune): A pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And on behalf of your entire staff, congratulations on the Pulitzer.

Mr. AMOSS: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of audience applause)

CONAN: Let me begin with an easy one. Should we have any confidence in the levee system?

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. AMOSS: That's a trick question. Well, there are some temporary measures. Certainly, we had false confidence last August going into Katrina, as was proved by what happened and the underlying reasons for the levee failures, and that is that they weren't properly designed and engineered and built. And it is a disgrace to our nation that that occurred.

Measures have been taken for this upcoming season. They're, in some cases, temporary measures, and I think they will improve the situation. But whether we can withstand whatever comes at us is yet to be seen.

CONAN: Mm hmm. There were also some political complications as we, the rest of the nation learned after Katrina. Sometimes, maintenance of the levees was in the hands of local levee boards which had some ancillary duties as well. Local politics, the word featherbedding seemed to come up a lot in this context. Have those things been resolved? Have, has any of this been streamlined and made simpler?

Mr. AMOSS: Yes and no. We had a system of multiple levee boards that were often used to provide jobs for political cronies of people, and we've written about the system. We wrote an interesting story in the fall, after Katrina, about how the inspections took place on a given morning, and it seemed that the main goal of the people driving around the levees - and really only cursorily inspecting them - was to end up at a good lunch place. And whether the levees were inspected in that process, I think, is in grave doubt.

CONAN: And now their choices for lunch have been reduced as well, so.

Mr. AMOSS: Their choices for lunch and as well as the number of agencies. There was a consolidation of sorts passed by our legislature this winter.

CONAN: Just reading your newspaper in preparation for this program, I think it was yesterday on one side a headline saying, "Everybody says everything is ready." On the other headline seems to be, "We're all going to die."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AMOSS: Well, and there are two sides to the question are we ready? One is the real progress - or lack thereof - that's been made by the Corps of Engineers, and the temporary gates at the mouth of the drainage canals which flooded the city are certainly a sign of real progress.

And the other side of it, to my thinking, is people's state of mind. We are, in my opinion, going to have one jittery hurricane season. And the first time a storm of any size enters the Gulf of Mexico, we New Orleanians are going to be watching it very closely, and we're going to evacuate at the drop of a hat.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Ratings for the Weather Channel should go up, you figure.

Mr. AMOSS: Or the Times-Picayune, as the case may be.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

CONAN: As the case may be. Your Web site, I'm sure, tracks them all live. Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Again, if you'd like to join us, it's 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is And Kathleen, Kathleen's on the line with us from Sacramento.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Hi, I was in New Orleans for two weeks a couple of weeks ago, in New Orleans and Slidell and down Bay St. Louis, and I was appalled at the amount of garbage that's still on the streets - the debris leftover from Katrina, and here we're starting a new season. I feel like the rest of the country has abandoned New Orleans and South Mississippi. I'm wondering what we can do.

CONAN: Jim Amoss?

Mr. AMOSS: I certainly appreciate your coming here and your compassion for our plight. The debris problem does seem to be unending, and there are still so many people who have not returned yet to clean out their houses of this debris. I think, I would give the government - both local and federal - a C-minus in that department, and I think that we can do much better.

CONAN: I've also heard people tell me that, you know, it was bad enough when it was brown and dead, but now so many areas are overgrown with weeds. In a way, it's worse.

Mr. AMOSS: Yeah. And partly, it's the result of the city not having the tax base it used to have, having to lay off half its workforce and, as a result, simply doesn't have the staffing to mow the lawns and clear away the trash.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Kathleen. Let's get a question from here in the audience in New Orleans.

Mr. HARMON GREENBLOOD(ph): Hi, my name's Harmon Greenblood. I live here in New Orleans, and I think the question that I hear most people asking is why? You know, why when they tell us that garbage pickup is on Thursday, sometimes they come on Wednesday, sometimes they come on Friday, sometimes they don't come at all? Why are so many of the areas without electricity in town?

And maybe even more important than that, why, after nine months, when we had a little storm here a few weeks ago, the pumps failed yet again? There doesn't seem like the kind of recovery that we need to protect us is anywhere near in place for this coming hurricane season.

CONAN: And just before we get an answer to the question, well, I should explain the pumps here used to get the water out of the city. It is below sea level, so pumps are absolutely critical. James Amoss?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, you're talking to someone who has Thursday garbage pickup. And so this morning, having dutifully brought out my garbage last night, I stood by the window reading my paper and glancing up occasionally, and watched in amazement as the garbage truck actually showed up on Thursday morning and hauled away all my garbage, so…

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. AMOSS: Such is life in New Orleans. And I think everybody in the audience understands exactly how I felt. It is very slow progress on so many fronts. And I think partly, it's because - partly it's incompetence and lack of planning. Partly it's, for New Orleans, it's the lack of - it's the distraction of a political season, which I think kept a lot of people's minds off of the tasks that need to be done. And I guess, thirdly, an excuse - I would say no American city has ever been confronted with the task of completely recreating itself and its infrastructure from scratch. And it's a daunting task. We should be doing better at it.

Mr. GREENBLOOD: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the question.

You mentioned political season. Mayor Nagin was just reelected last Saturday, in an election which 80 percent - as I'm looking at the numbers - 80 percent of the white people voted for the white candidate, and 80 percent of the black people voted for the black candidate. And while it did not degenerate into a nasty mudslinging race, the issue of race certainly can't be overlooked. People voted, seemingly, on the basis of the color of their skin.

Mr. AMOSS: You know I tend to look at it the other way around: 20 percent of black people voted for the white candidate, and 20 percent of white people vote for Mayor Nagin. And to me, the size of that crossover vote and the fact that it increased from the primary to the runoff…

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. AMOSS: …is, I think, a healthy sign of a city that yes, certainly has its racial tensions and its racial polarization and sees things, to some extent, through a racial prism. But I don't think in any multicultural American city of this size you would find a different dynamic. And I think, actually, it's a fairly healthy sign that people are looking beyond race - the fact that without that crossover vote, the incumbent never would have been reelected. And, in fact, he was voted into office four years ago on the strength of the white vote then.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Elizabeth Glecker(ph) in New Orleans.

"There was and still is a problem with planning in the evacuation or disaster crisis, communications. Once there are several entities that arrive, such as FEMA or the military, they set up their own sites, such as the JFOC in Baton Rouge, and do not interact with local authorities. There's a tendency to overlook local officials. Locals know the ground situation, and yet are bypassed. This turf war over who's in charge and who will issue orders has not been cleaned up so far."

She says one big problem in disasters is communications planning, and no one seems to be prepared for this. And I should point out there have been big games of preparation underway in New Orleans yesterday. There was also one in Washington yesterday at the White House. How come they weren't talking to each other?

Mr. AMOSS: You know, I don't have much trust in these games. There was a game a week or so ago before Katrina, and look what it gained us. I would add, however, that the - you made mention of the evacuation, and I think the record of New Orleans' evacuation has been much maligned and unfairly so, I think, in national media.

I just read yesterday in the New York Times an otherwise excellent editorial. It spoke of the bungled evacuation of New Orleans. And the fact of the matter is, and I think Ray Nagin deserves a lot of credit for this, the evacuation of New Orleans in Katrina was a huge success. To get 80 percent of a major American city out of harm's way on short notice is an extraordinary feat that we did not see duplicated, by the way, in Houston when Rita came its way.

CONAN: There were other aspects to that.

Mr. AMOSS: There were.

CONAN: We'll get to them after the break. Jim Amoss, the editor of the Times-Picayune. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, live from Le Chat Noir, in New Orleans.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Hurricane season begins again in one week's time. Our guest today is Jim Amoss, editor of the Times-Picayune, here in New Orleans. We're going hear some New Orleans jazz later in the program. And at our Web site, you can follow along with our conversation if you'd like. That's There's an interactive map of New Orleans where you can see a snapshot of reconstruction across the city.

As we mentioned earlier, the Times-Picayune was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize this year. Kate Magandy is city editor for The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi. Her newspaper shared that Pulitzer Prize for its Katrina reporting in 2006. Kate was scheduled to be here with us in New Orleans today, but breaking news prevented her from making the trip at the last minute.

We're able to connect to her by phone, and, Kate Magandy, thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. KATE MAGANDY (Editor, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Mississippi): Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And again, congratulations to you and the staff of The Sun Herald for the Pulitzer.

Ms. MAGANDY: Thank you very much. It's quite an honor.

CONAN: Mississippi had a whole set of different problems than New Orleans. Has the recovery effort there gone better, differently, faster?

Ms. MAGANDY: I would say it's probably gone differently. I wouldn't say it's better, I wouldn't say it's faster, although there are some things better, and I think there are a lot of people who see, or perceive to see more progress in Mississippi. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that we just had a lot of buildings knocked down.

So you're seeing more progress in that the debris is being picked up. I don't know that we're getting anything built any faster or recovering economically any faster than New Orleans, but certainly the debris being off the ground is a huge mental boost, if nothing else.

CONAN: Mm hmm. As people are getting ready, maybe for the next one, is Katrina the new standard?

Ms. MAGANDY: Yes, very much so. You know, for 35 years on the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Camille, which struck in 1969, was the benchmark. And, you know, there were people who said after the storm that, you know, Hurricane Camille probably killed as many people as Hurricane Katrina because people said this is - it can't be as bad as Camille, and I lived through Camille, so I'm going to stay. And, unfortunately, it ended very tragically for some of those people. And I think that now people are less inclined to take the I survived attitude or excuse to not evacuate when ordered to.

CONAN: As you look as preparations in your area - well, clearly, they're different from last year - do you think that they're being taken more seriously?

Ms. MAGANDY: Yes, I think that they will be taken more seriously. There are a lot of people who are very hesitant to stay if it's a less severe storm.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. MAGANDY: You know, a category two or three in three, and they're talking about picking up and going. And some of that has to do with the fact that there are a lot of people in FEMA trailers, and they are not built to withstand hurricane force winds.

CONAN: We hear in New Orleans about people's concerns about Katrina fatigue that the rest of the country, and, in particular, that part of the country inside the Washington, D.C., beltway will forget about the situation here. Yet, New Orleans and Louisiana, in general, seem to get a lot more attention than the situation in Mississippi.

Ms. MAGANDY: I think that that's fair to say that New Orleans gets more national attention, but by the same token, you know, we've had stories in Rolling Stone, and there was a piece in New York Times Sunday Magazine this past weekend about Biloxi and its recovery efforts. So, you know, all we can do at The Sun Herald is continue to tell the story and hope that people read our Web site, read our newspaper, and that the national media sees something that they think might be of interest in the - nationally, and pick up our story.

CONAN: And I'm going to ask you a question, I'm going to ask Jim Amoss to come in on it as well. Is there a sense of competition that you got to get your politicians up to get whatever they can out of Washington as soon as they can, even if it's at the expense of somebody else?

Ms. MAGANDY: I don't think that anybody would feel like, you know, we've got to undercut Louisiana's recovery efforts, you know, for our own. I think that our congressional delegations in Louisiana and Mississippi are working equally as hard. I know that Senator Cochran, who's on the Appropriations Committee, was working just as hard to help Louisiana get money for their recovery efforts. And, in particular, the levee systems come to mind, as he was to help Mississippi's recovery efforts and some of the money they needed for bridge repairs, let's just say. Or the relocation of the CSX tracks.

CONAN: Yeah. Jim Amoss, that same question, is there competition for this money?

Mr. AMOSS: No, I would agree with Kim that both states have their housing assistance plan in effect. And that really is the cornerstone of the rebuilding, both of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and of Louisiana. Mississippi, I think everyone would acknowledge, has greater political clout - both through the governor and their senators - than Louisiana does at this moment. And Louisiana benefited from that because overall, what they were able to achieve also redounded to Louisiana's benefit.

CONAN: All right. Kate Magandy, we're going to let you get back to work. We're sorry you couldn't be with us here today.

Ms. MAGANDY: I appreciate your forbearance, Neal, and maybe next time.

CONAN: Maybe next time. Kate Magandy, sitting editor for The Sun Herald in Biloxi, which shared the Pulitzer Prize for its Katrina reporting in 2006.

SUNG(ph) (Audience Member): Hi, my name is Sung, and I live here in New Orleans. One of our great local governmental failures came - was exposed by -in our criminal justice system that really fell apart during and after Katrina, particularly our Sheriff Gusman's office with their botched evacuation of adults and juveniles from OPP, our police department - who faced scandals from the Danziger Bridge incident, as well as being caught on film by the Times-Picayune looting Wal-Mart and also looting Sewell Cadillac. And our injured defense system, which left thousands of people imprisoned indefinitely because they lacked representation. Have our local government officials taken responsibility, and do you have confidence in our local criminal justice system?

Mr. AMOSS: That would take a huge leap of faith that I don't quite have at this point. There are signs that - of some efforts to remedy the situations. I think the first criminal trial took place in New Orleans just this week, but the flip side of that is that people have languished on charges, incarcerated for just an unconscionable period of time. And as you say, the storm exposed some really deep flaws in the system. All three legs of the law enforcement stool, so to speak: the police department and the judiciary and the district attorney's office, as well as the sheriff's.

CONAN: Let me ask you a question. Kate Magandy was referring to the tens of thousands of people still living in FEMA trailers. As I understand, a lot of the police here in New Orleans are still working out of FEMA trailers. This can't be encouraging.

Mr. AMOSS: A lot of law enforcement in New Orleans lived in that part of the city that was inundated, and don't have - are living in temporary housing or living with relatives. We also did a story, I should say, about the heroism of the officers who did stay under extraordinary hardship, and who kept the department together and kept the morale up at a time when there was absolutely no communication with their higher-ups or with each other. That's not a negligible feat. So it should, I think, it should be said in the same breath as some of the bad things that happened.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your question, appreciate it.

Let's get another caller on the phone. This is Franklin, Franklin calling from Cincinnati.

FRANKLIN (Caller): Hello. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

FRANKLIN: Yes, my question is wondering what you believe that local media, non-profit organizations, and even governmental institutions are going to do to try to take away from that perception of disenfranchisement in the last storm?

I know that looking at the news from far the way up north, really the portrayal that the media has presented is that 50 percent of the population was high and dry, and the rest of them were pretty much herded together and had no real way to fend for themselves. I know perception is a lot in this society, and I was wondering if there's a way to promote some positive accolades to try to get the region stabilized, and what are your ideas on that?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, I think the best thing that we can do as media is be explanatory in our journalism, and tell people exactly the state of the defense system that protects the city and the region from these kinds of floods. And give people the maximum amount of warning and advanced notice so that they can get out of harms way in time.

CONAN: Is anybody at this point - the degree of trust in government at this point, has it become so eroded that everybody should, just as common sense, be prepared to take care of themselves?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, if you read what we and others have written about the levee system, how poorly it was designed, how corners were cut in order to save expense, it does not instill confidence and I think the proof's in the pudding. If this can be corrected - there are examples around the world of governments that have done, that have filled this role properly.

We traveled to the Netherlands, for example, and wrote extensively about their very elaborate and expensive system of dikes and floodgates that protect the country, that much of which is below sea level. And a country like the United States ought to have a government, deserves a government, that can provide that same level of protection.

CONAN: It seemed to generate a fair bit of anger when people saw those pictures of the gigantic steel structures and the expense and looked at the earthen dikes here in New Orleans and elsewhere down the state.

Mr. AMOSS: It did. People were saying to themselves, why can't we have that?

CONAN: Yeah, yeah. Let's see if we can get another - thank you very much for the call, David, by the way. Let's see if we can get another question from here in the audience.

Mr. YULE SMITH(ph) (Executive Director, Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board): My name is Yule Smith. I'm the executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. First of all, I want to thank ya'll for NPR coming down to New Orleans.

CONAN: We thank you for the seafood.

Mr. SMITH: You're welcome. The challenge we're facing in our fishing communities - and Jim, I'm sure he's seen some of our fishing communities - are people who haven't seen New Orleans firsthand but have seen the pictures of Lake View or Gentilly, these areas that have been flooded. They're devastated. I tell people - I grew up in Lake View, I tell people those areas look great compared to our fishing communities.

Of the billions and billions of dollars that have come down to the coastal community, the coastal areas that the storm impacted, not one dime has come down to help the fishing communities to rebuild their infrastructure, to put the boats back in the water, to put the docks back in place, to put the icehouses in place.

Jim, I just wanted to see what your thoughts are and where you stand as how you feel the government has responded to the needs of our fishing communities in relation to the city of New Orleans.

Mr. AMOSS: Well, I think Plaquemines Parish, which is the base of much of what you're talking about, has been grossly neglected by comparison to the rest of this metropolitan area. And it's an industry that not only we in this city and this region depend on, but the whole nation does. And I think more needs to be done.

CONAN: All right. More broadly, though, this is - every - in response to any situation, you have to have a list of priorities in terms of dealing. Do you think broadly, and I'm talking about various levels of government and across a couple of states and many different jurisdictions, but broadly are the priorities, have the priorities been right?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, I think understandably the biggest priority needs to be on the areas that have the biggest population, and that would be the city of New Orleans. And in the government's defense you also have to acknowledge that protecting an area, essentially the mouth of the Mississippi River, which is extraordinarily vulnerable, is far more complicated and more expensive, and if it's done on a cost per population basis, yes, it's easier to justify spending bucks on protecting New Orleans.

CONAN: Thanks for the question.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. We're talking with Jim Amoss, editor of the Times-Picayune here in New Orleans. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And one of the things that we've learned in this crisis, and again, it still is a crisis, but one of the things we've learned is the importance of communications with the people and the importance of a newspaper. What are you at the Times-Picayune planning to do differently this time around if there is another one?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, for one thing, we have learned lots of lessons about communicating. We're in the communications business, and yet the ability to communicate failed us almost completely. Through various serendipities we were able to get out an electronic edition of the paper for the three worst days, but in some cases we had to knock on people's doors and see if there was a telephone landline or drive to a remote town in Louisiana in order to phone in stories to our temporary offices in Baton Rouge.

We have a rather elaborate plan in place for this next season, but we recognize also that you can't always be fighting the last war. And who knows what kind of disaster, God forbid there be a next storm, but if there is, it may come from an entirely different direction or it may have a different sort of flooding, it may hit in a way that just - the best laid plan has to be nimble and flexible.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one last question for you from the audience here in New Orleans.

Mr. TOM LOWENBERG(ph) (Owner, Octavia Books): I'm Tom Lowenberg. I'm a resident of New Orleans. I own a bookstore, Octavia Books, and we just released - we put on sale a book by (unintelligible) Storm. He did a lot of the forensics on why the levees failed and did a lot of the modeling on the storm surges and he talks about - also about changes in our natural environment, as does a lot of the Pulitzer Prize winning reporting of the Times-Picayune, that has caused increased storm surge in recent years. And I'd like to hear a little bit of your thoughts about - beyond levees and floodgates, what needs to be done to protect us from future storms. Not necessarily just next year, but beyond.

Mr. AMOSS: We wrote a multi-day series about three years ago that explained, both in words and also in graphics, what had happened to the Gulf Coast and particularly the coast of Louisiana over the past decades and how barrier islands had eroded and wetlands and marshes had vanished and continue to vanish. But the point of the series was that these were the natural barriers of our nation against the potential devastation of a hurricane.

And without those barriers we are left unbelievably vulnerable, as was proved in Hurricane Katrina. And so building stronger levees and building floodgates alone will not be sufficient and we must find a way to finance the rebuilding of the wetlands through diversion projects. We must find a way to strengthen the barrier islands before they vanish altogether.

CONAN: Hmm. We just have about a minute or so with you left, but one of the things you talked about was an agile plan. What happens with all of this political will and this determination if nothing happens, not this year, not next year, not for the next five or ten years, if those hurricanes go elsewhere and people's attention begins to flag?

Mr. AMOSS: It will be a long time before the attention of New Orleanians will flag. I just don't think that we in this city will be able to or afford to forget. And I think it's our - the burden falls on us to keep reminding the nation of this danger that imperils not just us but many others.

CONAN: Jim Amoss, thank you so much for being with us today. We appreciate it. And again, congratulations on the Pulitzer Prize.

Mr. AMOSS: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Jim Amoss is the editor of the Times-Picayune here in New Orleans. We're going to take another short break and when we come back, music from the Jordan family. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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