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It wasn’t exactly a surprise. “This ain’t gonna last,” New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas told his security guard as they watched the waters of Lake Pontchartrain rising and racing and eating away at the dirt levee beneath the concrete floodwall built to protect New Orleans from disaster.

It was 4 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 28. Hurricane Katrina was still 14 hours away, but the sea surge had begun. Thomas returned to the city’s hurricane war room and announced, to anyone who was listening, “The water’s coming into the city.”

Thomas was asleep on his office couch early Tuesday morning when he was awakened by the sound of banging on his door and someone yelling, “The levee broke!”

Thomas stood up on his soaked carpet and felt as though he were standing in concrete. He was paralyzed, he later said, by the fear of predictions coming true.

Thomas, who had been rescued off the roof of his house in New Orleans during Hurricane Betsy in 1965, had been a city councilman for a dozen years. His specialty is water. He knew all about the studies and reports and dire warnings stacked up on the desks of bureaucrats, he knew about all the relief and reconstruction and restoration projects that had been discussed but never paid for or carried out, and he knew his beloved old city was doomed. A few rescuers were ready, but precious few.

On Monday morning, as the storm slammed into the Gulf Coast, Col. Tim Tarchick of the 920th Rescue Wing, Air Force Reserve Command, got on the phone to call every agency he could think of to ask permission to take his three rescue helicopters into the disaster zone as soon as the storm abated.

The response was noncommittal. FEMA, the federal agency that is supposed to handle disasters, told Tarchick that it wasn’t authorized to task military units.

That had to come from the Defense Department. Tarchick wasn’t able to cut through the red tape until 4 p.m. Tuesday—more than 24 hours after the storm had passed. His crews plucked hundreds of people off rooftops, but when they delivered them to an assigned landing zone, there was “total chaos.

No food, no water, no bathrooms, no nothing.” There was “no structure, no organization, no command center,” Tarchick told NEWSWEEK.

The Lost City

One of Newsweek’s first analyses of the impact of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans 9 years ago today.

(via newsweek)
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