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New Orleans braced for Elena by learning its lessons from Betsy

When forecasters predicted Hurricane Elena would hit here last Friday, thousands of New Orleans residents evacuated, but experienced instead just another sunny and sultry summer weekend. Monday, however, the erratic Elena moved back westward from Florida hitting the coast near Biloxi, Miss., and evacuation orders were reinstated for parts of Louisiana. Some effects had begun to be felt at the time of writing Monday afternoon as high winds and large waves began to hit the Louisiana coast.

Despite the initial false alarm, the ``cry wolf'' theory doesn't much apply in New Orleans because of the lingering memories of Hurricane Betsy that struck 20 years ago on Septemer 9, 1965, followed four years later by Hurricane Camille.

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When Betsy struck, the city was largely undefended. The levies available weren't able to handle the deluge of water whipped up by the furious winds. Neither state nor local government had a comprehensive emergency plan. Residents were relatively uninformed about disaster preparedness. Flood insurance was nonexistent.

Since then, the city has learned its hard lessons. The federal government authorized the US Corps of Engineers to build a huge hurricane protection system. A series of floodwalls and levies protecting against flood waters of up to 17 feet was constructed to encircle the entire area and prevent massive flooding.

Today, New Orleans and vicinity is better protected than it was 20 years ago, but with the project still only 67 percent completed the multi-parish area remains vulnerable. (Counties in Louisiana are called parishes).

``We're like a saucer,`` says Janice Mosier, spokeswoman for the US Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District. Her reference is to New Orleans's unique topography; large parts of the city are below sea level. Though it is 120 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, the city is also surrounded on three sides by water. ``This is a very vulerable to nature, '' she says.

The $690 million Hurricane Protection Project won't be completed until the year 2006. Only then will New Orleans residents feel more secure during hurricane season.

``We're building as fast as we can,'' Ms. Mosier says, ``when you're under construction for 20 years you question how fast you can do it and how much the government wants to spend.''

Already nearly $250 million has been spent, 70 percent paid by the federal government and 30 percent picked up locally.

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Many more lessons have been learned over the years, with more than hurricanes doing the teaching. With about 60 inches of rainfall annually, New Orleans knows alot about drainage control. It is said to have one of the country's best drainage systems, but its pumps still prove inadequate during unusually heavy rainstorms.

Evacuation too, still troubles the city. Interstate 10 is the only major route out of the area to points east and west. A causeway across Lake Pontchartrain leads North, but driving on it is precarious during high winds and heavty rains.

Ten years ago the city's Civil Defense Department implemented the first comprehensive emergency operation plans to coordinate an orderly evacuation with outlying parishes. It remains to be tested.

``The biggest problem we have, is we've never had a hurricane in 20 years,'' says Lionel Estopinal, director of civil defense.

But it hasn't taken another hurricane to implement flood insurance. Several severe rainfalls in the last decade have created a requirement for it. Whereas flood insurance didn't exist just eight to 10 years ago, today about 70 percent of the populace is protected by it, according to the Standard Mortage Insurance Agency. Most mortage companies now require flood insurance as a condition for a homeowner loan.

Given its continuing vulnerability, New Orleans keeps up a strong guard when a storm threatens. Shop windows are criss-crossed with hurricane tape, homeowners nail boards across windows, grocery shelves are emptied of food, cars line up for gasoline, businesses close early, television sets are on everywhere.

A New York stockbroker in town for a week on business was intrigued by the city's response. `` I didn't take it seriously, but I was a little unnerved when I saw sandbags in the lobby of the Intercontinental [Hotel]'' he said.

``We never see hurricanes in Manhattan,'' he said.

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