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National Public Radio Knew

From a September 2002 story for NPR, "Hurricane Risk to New Orleans", part of the series Nature's Revenge: Louisiana's Vanishing Wetlands.

Walter Maestri is struggling to help New Orleans prepare. Maestri is the czar of public emergencies in Jefferson Parish (that's the county that sprawls across a third of the metropolitan area). He points to a map of the region on the wall of his command post.

"A couple of days ago," explains Maestri, "We actually had an exercise where we brought a fictitious Category Five Hurricane into the metropolitan area."

The map is covered with arrows and swirls in erasable marker. They show how the fictitious hurricane crossed Key West and then smacked into New Orleans.

When the computer models showed Maestri what would happen next, he wrote big letters on the map, all in capitals.

"KYAGB -- kiss your ass good bye," reads Maestri.

"Because," says Maestri, "anyone who was here when that storm came across was gone -- it was body-bag time. We think 40,000 people could lose their lives in the metropolitan area."

And some scientists say that figure is conservative. People have known for centuries that New Orleans is a risky spot -- the biggest river in North America wraps around it; and most of the land is below sea level. But researchers say they've been learning just how grave the problem is, only in the last few years. And they say the city and the nation aren't prepared to handle it.

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