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New Orleans Demonstrates That It's Ready For Hurricane Season


New Orleans is famous for its food, music and easy living. But it's infamous for Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it caused in 2005. Well, today marks the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season. As Ryan Kailath from member station WWNO reports, hurricane preparation is an area where New Orleans wants to shed its famous laissez-faire reputation.

RYAN KAILATH, BYLINE: Did you catch that it's hurricane season?


MITCH LANDRIEU: As everybody in the city of New Orleans knows, hurricane season is upon us.


WALT ZALESKI: Again, the hurricane season starts June 1, and all it takes is one storm.


CRAIG FUGATE: So enjoy the outdoors. Enjoy the waters. Enjoy your summer. But have a plan now.

KAILATH: That was New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, meteorologist Walt Zaleski and Craig Fugate, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. They gathered in New Orleans for the annual hurricane prep kickoff, which seems to get bigger every year. In addition to warnings, agencies also take the opportunity to show off all the improvements they've made. The Air Force displayed hurricane hunters - planes they fly into storms to collect weather data. The Army Corps of Engineers conducted public tests of their pump stations and floodgates, and the city of New Orleans focused on evacuation plans. Alvin Pool was 11 when Katrina hit. His family was stranded nearly two weeks.

ALVIN POOL: It was me, about 15 of my family members, one bedroom, two beds, couple children, two pregnant women. It was horrible.

KAILATH: Pool is 22 now and volunteers with the nonprofit Evacuteer. It helps the city manage evacuations for the roughly 35,000 New Orleanians unable to get out on their own.

POOL: This is my first year actually getting into it, so I actually get to see how they evacuate people who don't have everything or as much as they should.

KAILATH: The system hinges on 17 evacuspots (ph). These are locations scattered across the city where people can get picked up and bused out of town. Each spot is marked with a tall statue - a stick figure of a man with a hand up in the air. I pointed one of the statues out to Treniece Celestine, and she recognized it immediately.

TRENIECE CELESTINE: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, I saw them before. I don't know what they are, though.

KAILATH: That's a problem because Celestine is exactly who the program was designed for. When Katrina hit, her car had broken down, and she couldn't get out. She spent a week sheltering in the Superdome, which she called living hell.

I'm curious, if your car broke down this year right before a storm, would you know where you're supposed to do?

CELESTINE: No. I know to leave. I don't know how I'm going to get that way.

KAILATH: I point out the statue actually marks an evacuation spot.

CELESTINE: Oh, my. I had no idea that that's what that was. I thought it was a - you know, some kind of decoration.

KAILATH: Thing about natural disasters is you don't always know what's going to fail until it's too late. That's what happened with Katrina when levees and flood walls broke and swamped the city. The irony of all this storm prep is that it might be for nothing, except that the next time a hurricane strikes, leaders will be able to look back and say, hey, can't say we didn't warn you. NPR News, I'm Ryan Kailath in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Kailath
Ryan Kailath [KY-lawth] is a business reporter at NPR in the New York bureau.