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In Katrina's Wake

America comes to grips with Katrina's long-term impact, and asks if we're prepared for the next disaster — natural or man-made.

By Patricia Smith

Across the street from Louisiana's State Capitol in Baton Rouge, New Orleans business leaders have begun to plot the rebirth of their city. They're concocting big plans — holding a scaled-down Mardi Gras at the end of February and lobbying for one of the 2008 presidential nominating conventions, and perhaps the next available Super Bowl. "We're thinking strategically," says J. Stephen Perry, the chief executive of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Gulf Coast is going to need all the strategic thinking the nation can muster. With hundreds, maybe thousands, dead, at least $200 billion in damage spread across some 90,000 square miles, and a major city devastated, Hurricane Katrina is perhaps the most deadly natural disaster to have ever struck the United States. It was not just the storm (a Category 4 hurricane when it hit the Gulf Coast on August 29), but also the failure of New Orleans's levees, which flooded the city, and the government's slow response in the immediate aftermath, that have made Katrina such a catastrophe for so many people.

The enormity of the impact can be felt everywhere. When Congress returned to Washington the week after the storm, it found its entire agenda — and the political landscape — totally changed. The country's economy will likely be affected for months, maybe years. As the cleanup moves forward, concerns about damage to the environment are increasing. And then there's the big question of whether the government's focus on terrorism has detracted from its planning for natural disasters.

Are we prepared?

Members of the 9/11 Commission expressed shock at what they described as the federal government's disastrous performance in response to Katrina, saying it suggested that Washington was also ill-prepared to deal with another catastrophic terrorist strike. Others agree. "If our system did such a poor job when there was no enemy," says Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine and chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee, "how would the federal, state, and local governments have coped with a terrorist attack that provided no advance warning and that was intent on causing as much death and destruction as possible?"

No storm in American history has matched the depth and breadth of Katrina's devastation. The two previous disasters that demolished major cities — the Chicago fire of 1871 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 — occurred before the federal government became so involved in disaster relief.

Katrina has produced a diaspora of historic proportions. Not since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s or the end of the Civil War in the 1860s have so many Americans been on the move from a single event. Federal officials say 400,000 to upward of 1 million people have been displaced from ruined homes.

Texas alone has taken in more than 230,000 people. But others are scattered across the nation, from California to Cape Cod. Everywhere, schools are struggling to handle a wave of displaced students. (See article, p. 11.) Many people say they will never go back, vowing to build new lives far from home. Others say they still feel utterly lost, uprooted from all that is familiar.

"The people are so nice, but this place is really strange to me," says Desiree Thompson, a New Orleans native who arrived in Albu-querque, N.M., with six of her children and two grandchildren a week after the storm hit. "The air is different. My nose feels all dry. The only thing I've seen that looks familiar is the McDonald's."

Bush's Challenge

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, Congress and the Bush administration moved swiftly to approve tens of billions of dollars of relief aid, and estimates for government spending on the recovery quickly topped $200 billion.

Nevertheless, the government was criticized for responding too slowly. On September 13, President Bush acknowledged the shortcomings: "Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."

In the week after the disaster, the President's approval rating dropped to just 40 percent — the lowest at any point in his presidency. Now, Bush faces a political challenge in reversing the impression that he mishandled the crisis.

"His image as a strong leader has been undercut dramatically," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist.

For many Americans, Katrina's most concrete effect has been higher gas prices. The area hit by the storm is one of the country's hubs for importing and producing oil and refining it into gasoline. With the Gulf region accounting for more than 25 percent of domestic oil production, the interruptions caused gas and home-heating prices to soar.

At the same time, farmers in the Midwest rely on barges to carry their corn, soybeans, and wheat down the Mississippi River, but the Port of New Orleans, a crucial link to export markets, was badly damaged by the storm.

Along the Mississippi coast, the destruction of the area's floating casinos will have a huge impact on the local economy. In 2004, the casinos, which provide thousands of jobs, paid $330 million in taxes to the state. Mississippi does not allow casinos on land, but the extensive damage to the floating casinos has sparked a debate over whether it should.

Environmental & Social Questions

Many people are worried about environmental problems resulting from the flooding of New Orleans. The water being pumped out of the city back into Lake Pontchartrain is laced with raw sewage, bacteria, heavy metals, pesticides, and toxic chemicals.

But it's not yet clear whether this brew poses a threat to ecosystems and fisheries. Some scientists think the risk of long-term damage is not high. One reason is that Lake Pontchartrain is fed by several rivers and flushed by tides through its link to the Gulf of Mexico.

Katrina's aftermath has also raised questions of race and poverty. In the first days after the storm struck, television images of the horrible suffering of the mostly black victims in New Orleans beamed across the globe, giving the world an unexpected view of American society. Had it not been for the distinctive outlines of the Superdome, the pictures of desperate, even dying people looked like they might have come from Haiti or Somalia. "This is a pretty graphic illustration of who gets left behind in this society," says Christopher Jencks, a sociologist at Harvard University.

With natural disasters, there tends to be a huge initial response by governments, the media, and the public, and then a falloff in interest when the initial shock and horror subside — as seems to be the case with last year's tsunami in Asia. Similarly, it may be a challenge keeping up interest in Katrina's victims and the Gulf Coast's recovery as time passes.

Rebuilding New Orleans

One of the most visible long-term effects of the storm will be what happens to New Orleans. After the floodwaters are drained, the sludge cleaned up, devastated homes demolished, and city services restored, many difficult questions will follow: Should the city be rebuilt largely the way it was? Will longtime inequities be addressed? Who will make decisions about the contours of the new New Orleans?

Now, hundreds of thousands of people who fled the hurricane's destruction are putting down roots in new places. If even a fraction of them decide not to return to New Orleans, the migration threatens a population crash that could be nearly as devastating as the storm itself.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, head of the department of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, says, "If a big chunk of the population doesn't come back, it's going to be horrific for the city."

But the city's business leaders remain optimistic. They point to the fact that the French Quarter, which drives the city's tourism-based economy, sustained only moderate damage and has already reopened for business. That will provide the foundation for jobs when the citizens return, they say.

President Bush has promised an infusion of federal aid for reconstruction across the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. "There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans," he told the nation, "and this great city will rise again."