For New Orleans weather watchers, last week's news had an eerily familiar tone. An area of disturbed weather in the Caribbean blew up into a tropical storm that was named Irene, and then Irene became the first hurricane of 2011 to take aim at the U.S. mainland, putting the Atlantic Coast on watch from Florida to Massachusetts and giving millions of people a nail-biting week.
Their dilemmas — to evacuate or to hunker down, where to go and when to make the decision — were all too familiar to Gulf Coast residents, who have borne the brunt of major hurricanes in recent years. Irene was forecast on nearly the same track as 1996's Hurricane Bertha, which also gave headaches to emergency officials. Bertha was a Category 2 when it came ashore. Irene was expected to be a very strong Category 3 storm, the strongest to hit the U.S. mainland since October 2005, and officials worried that those who remembered Bertha's relative weakness would be less likely to leave if the call came to evacuate in the face of Irene. Those of us who enjoyed four decades of relative calm between Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have learned some hard lessons about the danger of failing to take every hurricane seriously. Complacency is never an option.
As the Atlantic Coast prepared for a Category 3 storm, New Orleans prepared to remember a Category 5 hurricane. Katrina was officially a Category 3 when it came ashore at Buras, La., on Aug. 29, 2005, but its winds were clocked at 200 miles an hour in some places. Katrina devastated much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which still remembered 1969's Hurricane Camille. What happened in Mississippi six years ago was one of the nation's worst natural disasters ever, but it was the subsequent unnatural disaster — the collapse of federal levees in New Orleans — that wrote a new chapter in local and national history. The flooding of 80 percent of the city's homes and businesses left an indelible dividing line for people here: For a generation to come, time will be marked as "Before Katrina" and "After Katrina." This Monday, Aug. 29, marks Katrina's sixth anniversary.
Last year, Mayor Mitch Landrieu led a major civic memorial at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. This year, the city planned no formal remembrance. A spokesman for Landrieu's office said the mayor would be attending privately organized Katrina memorials around New Orleans, but the city itself would be holding no official event.
And perhaps that is, finally, as it should be. Though all of us who lived through Katrina and the federal floods will never forget those horrific days, and while each of us will observe the date in our own way, the fact that we don't need to gather and mourn collectively is in its own way another step forward, toward healing. Not that we'll forget — not that we ever could forget. The pain is still too fresh; the scars and blight in many neighborhoods still too evident. Most important, the realization of a truly protective levee system by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is only partially complete.
In 2007, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama promised "a levee and pumping system to protect the city against a 100-year storm by 2011, with the ultimate goal of protecting the entire city from a Category 5 storm." Without doubt, New Orleans today is much better protected against a hurricane than it was six years ago, though the Corps is still relying on some stopgap measures and some temporary construction fixes to permanent problems.
One flood control expert, John Barry, author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, was quoted by the nonpartisan fact-checking website Politifact as saying 100-year flood protection in New Orleans was "pretty much finished" — the keywords there being "pretty much." As the federal government contracts its budget to beat down the federal debt, it is more imperative than ever that U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter make sure the Corps has what it needs to finish the job.
The best Katrina memorial we can imagine would be a flood protection system that actually works.