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Breaking down the myths one year later

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The Truth About Hurricane Katrina

Breaking down the myths one year later

You remember nasty Katrina.

One year ago Tuesday, she violently spiraled into the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 people, destroying 353,000 homes, doing $81 billion in damage, drowning 80 percent of New Orleans and setting off a circus of media hysteria, political finger-pointing, racial recrimination and myth-mongering that embarrassed us before the whole world.

No thanks to the electronic media, the American public was left with a distorted view of what really happened before and after Hurricane Katrina hit.

Remember those initial shocking TV reports? New Orleans consumed by anarchy? Rescue helicopters shot at? People by the score being raped and murdered in the Superdome and convention center?

None of it was true. Looters were common. But violent crime was actually rarer than usual.

How about the government’s slow response time? Another myth. Within three days, 100,000 emergency personnel arrived on the scene from state, local and federal sources and rescued 100,000 soaked souls — making it arguably the largest and fastest rescue effort in U.S. history.

As for the mass evacuation that supposedly didn’t work, 1.2 million of metro New Orleans’ 1.5 million people left town before Katrina hit. It took 38 hours — 34 fewer than expected. Most who stayed behind chose not to leave.

At first the media-driven blame game was simple: President Bush and his cronies at FEMA didn’t care or respond fast enough. Later the most culpable pols — New Orleans Mayor Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Blanco — were fingered.

But the real culprits were not individual politicians but government and bureaucracy. At nearly every step and turn, it was hapless public-sector players that either caused problems or made them worse.

The city government — congenitally corrupt, broke and clueless — was ill-prepared for Katrina or became paralyzed in the clutch. Likewise the slimy Louisiana state government, which despite decades of warnings failed to upgrade the levees.

As for the feds, FEMA was a joke long before Katrina flooded New Orleans. So was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has spent the last 100 years messing up the natural flow of the Mississippi and which designed and built the storm walls and earthen levees that failed and flooded New Orleans.

Miraculously, the Corps admitted its incompetence in June, albeit in stereotypically bureaucratic fashion — by issuing a 6,000-page report that cost $19.7 million.

New Orleans, by all accounts, from Time magazine Spike Lee’s HBO documentary, is still in sad shape. Despite billions in federal aid, despite myriad promises and plans, despite the hard work of thousands of good people, more than 113,000 humans still live in FEMA trailers and 60 percent of New Orleans’ population lives elsewhere.

The poor city is a skeleton running on federal handouts. Its leaders are still arguing about what neighborhoods to redevelop and how. The Army Corps is still not done repairing the levees, which will need many years and many more billions before they can even stand up to another relatively weak Category 3 like the tragically well-aimed Katrina.

Meanwhile, as the public sector dithers and squabbles and plans its next fiascoes, Mother Nature will be perennially brewing up new catastrophes that could put wounded New Orleans under water again for good.

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Written By

Mr. Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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