One of the biggest news events in the United States during 2005 was the devastation left by two massive hurricanes, named Katrina and Rita, in the Gulf coast region. The cost of the disasters was estimated at over $200 billion. As officials struggle with the recovery effort, they also must prepare for future storms.
It was a nightmare that played out for weeks, from late August through most of September. Hurricane Katrina lashed the Gulf coast and drove like a freight train right over the lower Mississippi delta and on over Gulfport, Mississippi. But the worst was yet to come. At first, officials in Louisiana sighed in relief because the storm had caused relatively little damage in New Orleans, but then the levees that protect much of the low-lying city from floods gave way. In a matter of hours, the famed home of jazz and the Mardi Gras, was a disaster zone.
Survivors told heartbreaking stories of what they had seen.
"It wasn't nothing nice, you know," said one survivor. "I saw dead bodies - cats, dogs, birds. I saw old people in the 90s, almost 100 years old, and they were in the water with nobody to help."
As the situation grew worse, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin spoke to a local radio station about his increasing sense of frustration and despair.
"People are dying. They do not have homes, they do not have jobs. The city of New Orleans will never be the same," said Mr. Nagin.
Most, but not all, the people left behind in New Orleans were poor and black. As state, local and federal efforts foundered, some black leaders around the country blamed racism for what was happening. But as more stories emerged, the focus shifted to poor planning, inefficient operations and bureaucratic bungling.
Much of the blame went to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) whose director, Michael Brown, resigned in mid-September. But many residents of the stricken area also heaped blame on Mayor Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who admitted that she was taken aback by the scope of the disaster.
"What we are dealing with now is not what I would call normal hurricane damage. This is catastrophic in ways that we have not had to deal with," said Ms. Blanco.
President Bush also came in for harsh criticism, but on a visit to New Orleans and other parts of the devastated coast, he tried to deflect questions about who was to blame.
"I know there has been a lot of second guessing. I can assure you I am not interested in that. What I am interested in is solving problems and there will be time to take a step back and take a sober look at what went right and what did not go right," said Mr. Bush.
A final assessment of what went wrong in New Orleans and elsewhere in the hurricane zone is yet to come. Relief efforts were disrupted in New Orleans in mid-September when Hurricane Rita came ashore near the Texas/Louisiana border, devastating yet another area and re-flooding some parts of New Orleans. An order to evacuate Houston in advance of Rita led to a massive traffic jam on area highways. Had the storm not moved farther east, many thousands of people would have been trapped in their vehicles as the powerful winds and rain swept over them. State and local officials say they are re-examining their disaster plans.
As for New Orleans, initial inspection of the levees revealed evidence that contractors who built them decades ago may have done an inadequate job of anchoring the walls in the mushy, swamp soil. However, a more recent study cast doubt on that assessment. Unfortunately, there is little time to determine what needs to be done to reinforce the levees.
Hurricane experts are predicting another bad season for 2006, with as many as 17 named storms and nine hurricanes. Even as residents of the Gulf struggle to recover from this year's storms, they must now cast a weary eye towards next spring when the whole nightmare could be repeated.