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AP Warned of New Orleans Disaster
Just last year the Associated Press predicted all of the failures that have became part of the Katrina tragedy - but the story was about another hurricane, Hurricane Ivan.
When Ivan aimed its fury at the Big Easy, the AP detailed what could happen if the hurricane slammed into New Orleans.
In the case of Ivan, serious problems were caused by a lack of planning for a cataclysmic storm, yet with Katrina on the horizon, the lessons of Ivan were all but forgotten.
A feckless state governor and New Orleans' mayor repeated the same mistakes they made with Ivan, and hundreds of thousands of largely poor people were forced to endure conditions that one associates with the Third World - not the richest nation on the planet.
The disaster in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will come as no surprise to those who recall a September 19, 2004 Associated Press report.
Wrote the AP: "Those who had the money to flee Hurricane Ivan ran into hours-long traffic jams. Those too poor to leave the city had to find their own shelter - a policy that was eventually reversed, but only a few hours before the deadly storm struck land."
Eventually, tens of thousands of New Orleanans were directed to the Superdome - where no food, water or living facilities were provided for the massive number of refugees expected to remain there for at least several days. Fortunately few arrived.
Noted the AP then: "New Orleans dodged the knockout punch many feared from the hurricane, but the storm exposed what some say are significant flaws in the Big Easy's civil disaster plans."
Noting that much of the city lies below sea level, only kept dry by a system of pumps and levees, the AP recalled that as Hurricane Ivan approached the Gulf coast from the Gulf of Mexico, the city - warned by forecasters that a direct hit could send torrents of Mississippi River backwash over the city's levees, creating a 20-foot-deep cesspool of human and industrial waste - urged more than a million people to flee the wrath of the oncoming storm.
But nobody told them how to flee Ivan.
As happened before Katrina struck, residents who had cars took to the highways while the AP reported others wondered what to do.
"'They say evacuate, but they don't say how I'm supposed to do that,' Latonya Hill, 57, said at the time. 'If I can't walk it or get there on the bus, I don't go. I don't got a car. My daughter don't either.'
"'If the government asks people to evacuate, the government has some responsibility to provide an option for those people who can't evacuate and are at the whim of Mother Nature,'" Joe Cook of the New Orleans ACLU told the AP.
In the case of Katrina, there was huge fleet of school buses the mayor could have dispatched to aid in evacuating people unable to leave on their own. Instead, the buses sat in parking lots that later flooded, making them unusable when tens of thousands were stranded in the flooded city.
Dealing with safeguarding the city's population had always been a problem, the AP recalled, adding that the situation was worse at the time of Ivan since the Red Cross had stopped providing shelters in New Orleans for hurricanes rated above Category 2. Stronger hurricanes were deemed too dangerous, and Ivan was a much more powerful Category 4.
In the case of Ivan, city officials first said they would provide no shelter, then just as they later did with Katrina, they agreed that the state-owned Louisiana Superdome would open to those with special medical needs. Only Wednesday afternoon - with Ivan just hours away - did the city open the 20-story-high domed stadium to the public.
Mayor Ray Nagin's spokeswoman, Tanzie Jones, insisted that there was no reluctance at City Hall to open the Superdome as Ivan approached, but said the evacuation was the top priority.
"Our main focus is to get the people out of the city," she told the AP.
"We did the compassionate thing by opening the shelter," Nagin said. "We wanted to make sure we didn't have a repeat performance of what happened before. We didn't want to see people cooped up in the Superdome for days."
Noted the AP story: "When another dangerous hurricane, Georges, appeared headed for the city in 1998, the Superdome was opened as a shelter and an estimated 14,000 people poured in." But just as happened after Katrina, the AP reported there were problems, including theft and vandalism.
With Ivan approaching, far fewer took refuge from the storm - an estimated 1,100 - at the Superdome, and there was far greater security: 300 National Guardsmen.
Wrote the AP of the Ivan debacle: "The main safety measure - getting people out of town - raised its own problems. More than 1 million people tried to leave the city and surrounding suburbs on Tuesday, creating a traffic jam as bad as or worse than the evacuation that followed Georges. In the afternoon, state police took action, reversing inbound lanes on southeastern Louisiana interstates to provide more escape routes. Bottlenecks persisted, however.
"Col. Henry Whitehorn, head of state police, said he believed his agency acted appropriately, but also acknowledged he never expected a seven-hour-long crawl for the 60 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
"It was so bad that some broadcasters were telling people to stay home, that they had missed their window of opportunity to leave. They claimed the interstates had turned into parking lots where trapped people could die in a storm surge.
"Gov. Kathleen Blanco and [Mayor] Nagin both acknowledged the need to improve traffic flow and said state police should consider reversing highway lanes earlier. They also promised meetings with governments in neighboring localities and state transportation officials to improve evacuation plans.
But it appears that nothing had been changed by the time Katrina made its appearance in the Gulf.
After Ivan, Blanco and other state officials boasted that, while irritating, the clogged escape routes got people out of the most vulnerable areas.
"We were able to get people out," state Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc said. "It was successful. There was frustration, yes. But we got people out of harm's way."
After Katrina struck, however, escape routes out of the city were clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic, leaving some motorists on the road when the Hurricane arrived.
A new photo from AP shows a huge fleet of school buses lined up in a now flooded parking lot - what appears to be enough transportation sufficient to have evacuated many of those stranded in the city and left to endure unimaginable conditions - transportation that the mayor failed to use when there was still time to use it.
The lessons of Ivan were never learned, and the
people of New Orleans paid the price.