Then, as storms are wont to do, Katrina changed course. By Saturday morning, Aug. 27, it was clear that New Orleans lay in the killer storm's path. Frantic efforts ensued to gather supplies and either hunker down or hit the road. By that afternoon, Gov. Kathleen Blanco initiated the "contra-flow" plan along interstate corridors. This time it worked fabulously in comparison to the parking lot that accompanied Hurricane Ivan's near miss a year earlier.
Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation Sunday morning. By then, Katrina had grown to Category 5 strength and nearly filled the Gulf of Mexico with her fury. She was, quite literally, The Big One.
MIXED FEELINGS OF AWE, PANIC AND UTTER CONFUSION FOLLOWED. Those who managed to get out on Saturday watched in tears as the storm approached and our political leaders froze. True, there was no playbook for a hurricane of this magnitude, but why weren't buses commandeered early for the "mandatory" evacuation? More specifically, after a dress rehearsal a year ago with Ivan, why wasn't there a detailed, book-chapter-and-verse plan in place?
That, no doubt, will be a question posed to Mayor Ray Nagin during the next mayor's race -- whenever that is. In the meantime, defective floodwalls in Lakeview, Gentilly and the Lower Ninth Ward burst and the storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain filled the basin that is New Orleans. In eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, the surge actually topped levees, thanks to the one-two punch of the Intracoastal Waterway and the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, commonly known as "Mister Go." Both channels were dug by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and both caused horrific erosion problems -- exacerbating Katrina's impact because the coastal marshes that typically weaken hurricanes have largely washed away. The Corps of Engineers also designed the floodwalls that gave way in the city, making the flood a man-made rather than a natural disaster.
But that was no consolation to thousands stranded in homes, on highways, or consigned to the Louisiana Superdome, which, over the course of several days, became the world's largest toilet. As floodwaters rose across 80 percent of the city, sadness gave way to despair, and despair to anger. Within days, the world saw images of rampaging New Orleanians looting the city's stores and neighborhoods in full view of NOPD cops -- and sometimes accompanied by them.
Meanwhile, floodwaters spread contaminants and fears of "toxic soup," Gov. Kathleen Blanco cried on national TV, and Mayor Nagin ranted about too many news conferences and not enough federal assistance. Hundreds of citizen volunteers arrived with boats to help rescue stranded New Orleanians -- but many were turned away because nobody was in charge.
Finally, President George Bush ended his vacation and sent in federal troops. By then, the Superdome emptied and evacuees desperate for food, water and shelter quickly forced their way to the Morial Convention Center, which was not an official shelter. Reports of murder, rape and mayhem ensued.
Within two days of federal troops arriving, the looting subsided -- amid widespread reports of night-time snipers "taking out" some of the city's worst criminal gangs. The U.S. Coast Guard, along with hundreds of citizen and public-safety volunteers, rescued thousands more stranded on rooftops -- sometimes chopping their way into attics to pull people to safety. Scores of others came to the rescue of pets left behind by owners who thought they'd be returning a day or two after Katrina. With phone lines and cell phones down, the Internet and text messaging suddenly became the optimum means of communication.
When the immediate desperation subsided -- "normal" is still not a word used in these parts -- buses and trucks began shipping the last evacuees to shelters across the nation. New Orleans culture now has a foothold in virtually every state. Back home, as people began to consider how their city would be rebuilt, the discussion quickly turned to a heated debate about race and class. Why were some neighborhoods being considered for demolition? Why were some folks allowed back into the city sooner than others? Age-old resentments, long suppressed by time and inertia, suddenly boiled to the surface.
RAYS OF HOPE CAME INFREQUENTLY, BUT TWO VISITS BY PRESIDENT BUSH HAD A SALVING EFFECT, AT LEAST FOR A WHILE. In Washington, there was talk of making the recovery a national model. Then our delegation submitted a tab for the rebuilding effort in advance: $250 billion. Congress gagged, and the nation's empathy turned to disdain and distrust. Nagin and Blanco feuded, feeding the media's portrayal of Louisiana as the land of the stupid, led by the crooked and the incompetent.
The feds were not above blame. Michael "I am a fashion God" Brown resigned as the head of FEMA in the wake of glaring failures to recognize and address the scope of the devastation. New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass likewise stepped down after several embarrassing misstatements, some of which were repeated by Nagin.
The mayor and the governor appointed their own committees to address the recovery, fueling talk that we didn't have our act together. Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission and Blanco's Louisiana Recovery Authority eventually came together on their own and worked toward compatible plans, scheduled to be unveiled in January. Blanco called a special session of the Legislature that nearly got away from her. The governor's initial plan was to ignore budgetary issues, but conservatives insisted on dealing with them. As a result, lawmakers slashed almost $1 billion in spending and adopted a statewide building code, and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) took over 90 percent of New Orleans' public schools. Those moves became Katrina's silver lining.
In New Orleans, the chore of counting the dead continued as the Lower Ninth Ward finally reopened Dec. 2. The death toll stood at more than 1,000 as of this writing, but it continues to creep higher. Meanwhile, the Urban Land Institute has recommended returning vast swaths of the city to green space -- a suggestion that is sure to keep the race-and-class pot boiling for years to come.
After weeks of stumbles and false starts, Louisiana's congressional delegation secured more than $3 billion for levee reconstruction -- plus billions more for coastal restoration and other aid -- just in time for Christmas.
As the year wound to a close, the war-time dirge "I'll Be Home for Christmas" took on added poignancy for several hundred thousand displaced New Orleanians -- many of whom may never return. The city's public schools remain mostly closed, while private and parochial schools announced January reopenings. That triggered a return by thousands of middle-class and upscale families, whose decisions turned on their children's schedules in a community-wide attempt to make sure the kids' lives were not as disrupted as those of their parents. But even those plans were shaky as Entergy New Orleans, which filed for bankruptcy protection several months earlier, struggled mightily to get power restored to vast sections of the city. Then, of course, there were the waits for FEMA trailers, building permits from City Hall and building supplies.
A whole new strain of greetings emerged from Katrina:
Seen an adjuster lately?
How high is the mold in your house?
Know a good contractor? How about an electrician?
By year's end, streetlights began glowing again in long-dark parts of town, showing off those blue roof tarps and occasional holiday lights. Despite Nagin's ill-timed statements to the contrary, Mardi Gras is coming -- and the city's hospitality industry is leading what passes for New Orleans' economic recovery.
Hey, we've survived more than two dozen epidemics, a citywide fire, invasion, occupation and depression. So, sooner or later, thanks to the kindness of strangers and the sweat of our brows, we'll be back.