Feds knew they were unprepared for Katrina


    The federal government knew it couldn’t handle a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina yet continued to delay completion of plans to handle such an event, newly released documents show.

    “If you
    think soup lines in the Depression were long, wait till you see lines”
    at collection points in New Orleans, Transportation Department regional
    emergency officer Don Day said at a July 29 briefing with federal and
    state authorities.

    “We’re at less than 10 percent done with this
    … planning when you consider the buses and the people,” Day said at
    the briefing, according to notes taken by contractors Innovative
    Emergency Management Inc. of Baton Rouge.

    The plans were part of
    a government exercise, known as Hurricane Pam, to test the nation’s
    preparedness for a catastrophe. A month later, they were put to the
    test when Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, flooding New Orleans.

    The
    documents were released by the Senate Homeland Security and
    Governmental Affairs Committee, which was examining Hurricane Pam at a
    Tuesday hearing.

    Pam, a “tabletop” exercise that began in July
    2004, focused on a mock Category 3 hurricane that produced more than 20
    inches of rain and 14 tornadoes. It found, among other things, that
    floodwaters would surge over New Orleans levees, creating “a
    catastrophic mass casualty/mass evacuation” and leaving drainage pumps
    crippled for up to six months.

    Katrina was a Category 4 storm
    when it slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, though some weather
    experts downgraded it to Category 3 or even Category 2 by the time it
    reached New Orleans.

    Pam’s warnings proved prophetic. The
    documents show that the Homeland Security Department, which directed
    the Pam exercise, was warned a day before Katrina hit that the storm’s
    surge could breach levees and leave New Orleans flooded for weeks or
    months.

    An Aug. 28 report by the department’s National
    Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center concluded that a Category
    4 or 5 hurricane would cause severe damage in the city, including power
    outages and a direct economic hit of up to $10 billion for the first
    week.

    “Overall, the impacts described herein are conservative,”
    stated the report, which was sent to Homeland Security’s office for
    infrastructure protection.

    “Any storm rated Category 4 or greater
    … will likely lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching, leaving
    the New Orleans metro area submerged for weeks or months,” said the
    report.

    The documents are the latest indication that the federal
    government knew beforehand of the catastrophic damage that a storm of
    Katrina’s magnitude could cause. The Bush administration has been
    lambasted for its lackluster response to Katrina and its aftermath,
    including criticism that the government should have known a hurricane
    of that strength posed a danger to the area’s levees and was unprepared
    to cope with it.

    Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said he
    was not familiar with the documents but that the levees situation was
    one likely reason the government urged an evacuation of New Orleans
    before the storm hit.

    “We’re in the process of participating in a
    large after-action report,” Knocke said. “We’re deeply committed to
    finding out what worked and didn’t work, and apply those lessons
    learned going forward.”