For years before Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Gulf Coast, scientists, engineers, and journalists warned that New Orleans’ levees might not withstand the inevitable “Big One.” Yet government officials at every level ignored the warnings and cut the programs designed to fortify the city’s defenses. So when disaster finally struck in late August 2005, government agencies were woefully unprepared to deal with the devastation.

Into this breach waded nonprofits and businesses. The American...

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