I still don't get the sense that people appreciate how close we were to losing a lot more lives. All it would have taken was one more bureaucratic snafu, a little more fear of liability, a little more concern for appearances, and many thousands more would have died.
I'm talking about what the government got right, the first-order effect: calling for a complete evacuation, no excuses, this means you. It was a day late in coming, I guess. But remember, it had never been done before. Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, and President Bush got on the phone and did it (shrewdly spreading the responsibility among the three of them). I don't know how many lives this saved, but I'd guess tens of thousands at a minimum: far more than the actual death toll.
In engineering, if you're looking at thousands dead and you manage to cut that number by 80%, you're having a pretty good day. Somehow we expect a lot more of disaster response. Saving thirty thousand lives is gross incompetence; saving thirty-one thousand is just tolerable; saving thirty-one thousand and twelve is a good job.
A screwy perspective, but maybe it's the right one. If you want to save all the lives, you have to ask for it, and in America we ask by raising a ruckus and throwing the bums out when they get it wrong. Hmm.