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.

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

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

“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

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.”