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Learn the lesson of this 'big one' 

I have some history with hurricanes. My uncle Arnold was a federal meteorologist for 30 years. Growing up in Miami, I became accustomed to Arnold's annual speech that we should get ready for the "big one." Miami was repeatedly spared a catastrophic hurricane -- until 1992 -- and many people began ignoring the warnings of people like my uncle.

The first hurricane I witnessed up close was Donna in 1960. With my dad and uncle, we rushed to the Keys while gales were still blowing. I recall a 90-foot fishing trawler that had been lifted by a tidal surge more than half a mile from the shoreline to the middle of one of the islands. I recall twigs and small branches that were propelled by the wind with such velocity, they'd embedded themselves inches deep in a brick wall.

I'd later weather about 10 other hurricanes. In August 1992, I covered Hurricane Andrew for the Tampa Tribune. It was a big one, by it wasn't the biggest one. Andrew was a compact storm that devastated suburban residential areas but left Miami's downtown areas intact.

To see what a hurricane's unbridled fury could do to an urban center, we had to wait until last week. Now we know. New Orleans is gutted.

The current passion of politicians is to ensure blaming fingers don't point at them. President Bush claimed nobody "anticipated the breach of the levees." Simply not true. FEMA Director Michael Brown has said the fault for as many as 10,000 deaths is "attributable to a lot of people who did not heed the warnings." Well, the elderly, the infirm, the children and the poor didn't have the means to evacuate -- and FEMA ignored opportunities to do what it should have done.

The question facing America isn't politics. It's competency and whether our government is on our side. We have lethal proof of incompetence. We have good reason to question whether New Orleans was abandoned because the likely victims were poor and black. If a similar storm had struck, say, Hilton Head or Palm Beach, FEMA likely would have dispatched fleets of limos to evacuate well-heeled residents. That's an exaggeration, but how much?

In the meantime, we have to prepare for the next "big one." Part of that is emergency preparedness. Part of it also is to return our coastlines to wetlands and natural protective barriers. New Orleans was and will be a city that must exist for numerous reasons. But the horrible columns of condos and casinos along the Gulf Coast should end. Before the next big one.

Group Senior Editor John Sugg poked around the edges of Hurricane Katrina last week on a trip to Alabama and Mississippi. He can be reached at john.sugg@creativeloafing.com. You can read his blog at www.johnsugg.com.

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12/25/2014

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