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On Tuesday, August 23, 2005, an Air Force reconnaissance
plane picked up signs of a disturbance over the Bahamas.1 There
were “several small vortices,” it reported, spirals of wind
rotating in a counterclockwise motion from east to west—away
from the expanse of the Atlantic and toward the United States.
This disruption in wind patterns was hard to detect from clouds
or from satellite data, but cargo ships were beginning to
recognize it. The National Hurricane Center thought there was
enough evidence to characterize the disturbance as a tropical
cyclone, labeling it Tropical Depression Twelve. It was a
“tricky” storm that might develop into something more serious or
might just as easily dissipate; about half of all tropical
depressions in the Atlantic Basin eventually become hurricanes.2

The depression strengthened quickly, however, and by

Wednesday afternoon one of the Hurricane Center’s computer
models was already predicting a double landfall in the United
States—a first one over southern Florida and a second that might
“[take] the cyclone to New Orleans.”3 The storm had gathered
enough strength to become a hurricane and it was given a name,

Katrina’s first landfall—it passed just north of Miami and then
zoomed through the Florida Everglades a few hours later as a
Category 1 hurricane—had not been prolonged enough to
threaten many lives. But it had also not been long enough to take
much energy out of the storm. Instead, Katrina was gaining
strength in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In the wee
hours of Saturday morning the forecast really took a turn for the
worse: Katrina had become a Category 3 hurricane, on its way
to being a Category 5. And its forecast track had gradually been
moving westward, away from the Florida Panhandle and toward
Mississippi and Louisiana. The computer models were now in
agreement: the storm seemed bound for New Orleans.5

“I think I had five congressional hearings after Katrina.” said
Max Mayfield, who was director of the National Hurricane
Center at the time the storm hit, when I asked him to recall when
he first recognized the full magnitude of the threat. “One of them
asked me when I first became concerned with New Orleans. I
said ‘Sixty years ago.'”

A direct strike of a major hurricane on New Orleans had long
been every weather forecaster’s worst nightmare. The city
presented a perfect set of circumstances that might contribute to
the death and destruction there. On the one hand there was its
geography: New Orleans does not border the Gulf of Mexico as
much as sink into it. Much of the population lived below sea
level and was counting on protection from an outmoded system
of levees and a set of natural barriers that had literally been
washing away to sea.6 On the other hand th

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