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Lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina

Officials in New Orleans still struggled Wednesday to get everyone out — prompting cities across America to update their own emergency plans. What lessons have they learned? NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

The lessons of New Orleans are resonating across America. Until last week, the largest evacuation in American history was six years ago, when more than 3 million people from Florida to South Carolina were ordered to flee in advance of Hurricane Floyd. The result? Gridlock — traffic didn’t move for hours.

County officials in Charleston, S.C., now revise their emergency plans every June. In advance of a storm, buses take people to shelters, backed up by firefighters and police knocking on doors with a blunt message for those reluctant to leave.

"We have them fill out a form and ask them for the next of kin," explains Charleston County’s Cathy Haynes. "And typically they always say, ‘Well, why do you want that information?’ and we say, ‘Because we need someone to identify your body when this is over.’"

In Seattle, the big worry is earthquakes, which could collapse critical highways. What if communications failed, as they did in New Orleans, and people were trapped?

"We are taking a look at all the communication systems and plans and redundancies that we have in place in Seattle," says Barb Graff, Seattle’s Director of Emergency Management.

In fact, after a government drill two years ago to test Seattle's response to a radiation bomb, an internal Homeland Security report cited "critical coordination challenges" and "inconsistent or nonexistent" means of alerting people to threats.

And terror attacks, unlike Katrina, come without warning, making evacuation all the more difficult.

"What concerns me," says University of South Carolina disaster management expert Susan Cutter, "is sudden-onset events: such as earthquakes, tornadoes, chemical spills, nuclear power plant accidents and potential terrorist threats."

Whatever the threat, Katrina has prompted officials across America to take another look at disaster plans that may not be as sound as they'd thought.