WASHINGTON — As Katrina roared into the Gulf of Mexico, emergency planners pored over maps and charts of a hurricane simulation that projected 61,290 dead and 384,257 injured or sick in a catastrophic flood that would leave swaths of southeast Louisiana uninhabitable for more than a year.
These planners were not involved in the frantic preparations for Katrina. By coincidence, they were working on a yearlong project to prepare federal and state officials for a Category 3 hurricane striking New Orleans.
Their fictitious storm eerily foreshadowed the havoc wrought by Category 4 Katrina a few days later, raising questions about whether government leaders did everything possible — as early as possible — to protect New Orleans residents from a well-documented threat.
After watching many of their predictions prove grimly accurate, “Hurricane Pam” planners now hope they were wrong about one detail — the death toll. The 61,290 figure is six times what New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has warned people to expect, although by Friday officials in New Orleans thought the worst predictions were unfounded.
“I pray to God we don’t see those numbers,” Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told The Associated Press. “My gut is ... we don’t. But we just don’t know.”
The known Katrina death toll was less than 400 on Friday, but officials expect it to skyrocket once emergency teams comb through 90,000 square miles of Gulf Coast debris. Fears are particularly acute in New Orleans, where countless corpses lie submerged beneath a toxic gumbo that engulfed the city after levees gave way.
Report filled with dire predictions
The death toll is just one of the many chilling details in a 412-page report obtained by the AP from a government official involved in the Hurricane Pam project. Written in ominous present-tense language, the report predicts that:
- Flood waters would surge over levees, creating “a catastrophic mass casualty/mass evacuation” and leaving drainage pumps crippled for up to six months. “It will take over one year to re-enter areas most heavily impacted,” the report estimated.
- More than 600,000 houses and 6,000 businesses would be affected, more than two-thirds of them destroyed. Nearly a quarter-million children would be out of school. “All 40 medical facilities in the impacted area (are) isolated and useless,” it says.
- Local officials would be quickly overwhelmed with the five-digit death toll, 187,862 people injured and 196,395 falling ill. A half million people would be homeless.
The report calls evacuees “refugees” — a term now derided by the Bush administration — and says they could be housed at college campuses, military barracks, hotels, travel trailers, recreational vehicles, private homes, cottages, churches, Boy Scout camps and cruise ships.
“Federal support must be provided in a timely manner to save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate severe damage,” the report says. “This may require mobilizing and deploying assets before they are requested via normal (National Response Plan) protocols.”
Under fire, officials point fingers
On the defensive, White House officials have said Louisiana and New Orleans officials did not give FEMA full control over disaster relief. The so-called Hurricane Pam plan, which was never put into effect, envisions giving the federal government authority to act without waiting for an SOS from local officials.
In fact, the Homeland Security Department’s strategic plan already gives the agency authority to “lead national, state, local and private sector efforts to restore services and rebuild communities after acts of terrorism, natural disasters, or other emergencies.”
Homeland Security’s National Response Plan calls for a “proactive federal response to catastrophic events” and says, “Notification and full coordination with states will occur, but the coordination process must not delay or impede the rapid deployment and use of critical resources.”
Brown, relieved of his onsite Katrina duties Friday, said he was kept apprised of Hurricane Pam planning from the beginning. He assumes the report also was sent to superiors at the Homeland Security Department, “but can I put it in the hands of Secretary Ridge or Secretary Chertoff? No.”
Tom Ridge was the first department secretary and Michael Chertoff is his successor. “I’m almost sure it didn’t go to the White House,” Brown said.
Simulating the worst-case scenario
Under FEMA’s direction, federal and state officials began working on the $1 million Hurricane Pam project in July 2004, when 270 experts gathered in Baton Rouge, La., for an eight-day simulation. The so-called “tabletop” exercise focused planners on a mock hurricane that produced more than 20 inches of rain and 14 tornadoes. The drill included computer graphic simulations projected on large screens of the hurricane slamming directly into New Orleans — considered by federal experts to be nearly as big a risk as a terrorist attack on American soil or a massive earthquake in San Francisco.
“We designed this to be a worst-case but plausible storm,” said Madhu Beriwal, chief executive of Innovative Emergency Management Inc. of Baton Rouge, hired by FEMA to conduct the exercise.
The experts completed their first draft report in December 2004.
A follow-up workshop on potential medical needs took place in Carville, La., on Aug. 23-24 of this year, bringing together 80 state and federal emergency planning officials as well as Beriwal’s team.
They produced an update on dealing with the dead and injured, and submitted it to FEMA’s headquarters in Washington on Sept. 3. By then, Katrina had hit and the Bush administration, state and city officials were under heavy criticism for a sluggish response.
Brown: Lack of funding impeded follow-up
The 2004 report was designed to be the first step toward producing a comprehensive hurricane response plan, jointly approved and implemented by federal, state and city officials. But a lack of funding prohibited planners from quickly following up on the 2004 simulation.
“Money was not available to do the follow-up,” Brown said.
Hurricane Pam planning was prescient in many ways, predicting the flooding would exceed 10 feet and create a putrid mix of corpses, chemicals and human waste.
The report is remarkably detailed in spots. It includes diagrams for makeshift loading docks to distribute water, ice and food to storm victims — color-coded to show where pallets, traffic cones and trash bins would be placed.
In other places it’s obvious that the report is a working document; it doesn’t specify what hospitals or airports would be used.
The report missed the mark in some cases. Planning for a weaker but slower-moving storm than Katrina, the Hurricane Pam report did not predict that levees would break as happened in real life. However, state and federal official have long known that the levees were not built to withstand a Category 4 storm or higher.
Hurricane Pam slammed into New Orleans. Katrina’s eye hit to the east.
The report did not mention looting and lawlessness, which was rampant in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. It did call for at least one security guard at each shelter.
In another burst of foresight, the planners sought creative ways to house evacuees. Among other ideas, they instructed Louisiana parishes to find large vacant lots that could house makeshift trailer parks at a moment’s notice.
The deadline for doing so: Next month.
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