January 24, 2006
By LARA JAKES JORDAN
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- The government's plans to evacuate people from New Orleans in the approach of a catastrophic storm were only 10 percent complete a month before Hurricane Katrina, 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."