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Asking Questions In Katrina's Aftermath

As the recovery and cleanup following Hurricane Katrina continue, many questions are being raised about the response to the disaster by local, state and federal officials. An author who’s written a book and many articles about hurricanes has come up with a list of specific questions to help avoid similar problems with future storms.

Willie Drye is the author of “Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.” He is also a writer for National Geographic News. He says one of the first questions to ask is: How many local, state and federal administrators in charge of disaster management have actually been through a hurricane?

He says, "You kind of have to be in the middle of one of them and kind of absorb I think something from that experience to maybe have a full understanding of what these things are capable of doing. It’s hard to do that just sitting in an office a hundred miles, 500 miles, a thousand miles away. You do kind of have to absorb in some sense the experience of a hurricane to give you the proper respect for one of these things."

He says other questions include: What happened to the lines of communication? Who was supposed to be communicating with whom? Did officials understand the weather advisories, which warned of “devastating damage” and “unprecedented strength?” Could local leaders have made better use of the resources available to them? Could National Guard troops have moved in sooner? And, if FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency - was able to act quickly in Florida in 2004 after four powerful hurricanes, why could it not duplicate such accomplishments in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama?

"We need to find out about what went wrong. And I guess one of the downsides of this is that a lot of the information that comes out of it is probably going to be used for political purposes but we can’t not examine this because of that. Because of the possible political implications. It seems to me really important that we find out what went wrong here, how we can make it better the next time," he says.

Mr. Drye says on Sunday, August 28th, shortly before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf States, he spoke by phone with the mayor of Biloxi, Mississippi, A.J. Holloway. A conversation, he says, warned of the danger of complacency. He quotes from his notes, which refer to Hurricane Camille in 1969.

"This is what he said, ‘There’s a lot of new people who moved into Biloxi with the advent of casino gambling, who have never experienced a real hurricane. And they may be taking it lightly. And even some of the people who were here during Camille are not worried. But just because your house stood up during Camille don’t mean it’ll stand up to this hurricane.’ And of course that was a very prophetic comment that Mr. Holloway made, " he says.

Mr. Drye says many meteorologists say the United States could face very active hurricane seasons for the next 10 or 20 years. So he says answers to his questions should be found soon.

In the revised Hurricane season forecast for 2005, which was issued in early September, scientists have predicted six more hurricanes over the next two months, including three major storms. One hurricane, Ophelia, is currently active off the Eastern US coast.