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'Hurricane Pam' exercise offered glimpse of Katrina misery

NEW ORLEANS (9 September 2005, 6 pm) -- THE DOCUMENT'S cover page reads: "Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Functional Plan."

It maps out detailed instructions for emergency managers responding to a deadly hurricane that floods all of New Orleans, killing more than 60,000: how to rescue and evacuate hundreds of thousands of people stranded on rooftops or trapped by rising waters; how to quickly mobilize federal, state and local agencies; how to drain water laced with toxic sludge and clean up a ruined city.

But officials never put this plan into action. It wasn't an official disaster playbook but an experiment, the product of a weeklong simulation done last year in which emergency managers confronted a fictional "Hurricane Pam."

The halting emergency response to Hurricane Katrina's aftermath left thousands of people stranded in New Orleans and adjacent areas for days without food and water, with many vulnerable to roaming gangs of outlaws. Flaws in communications and coordination between government agencies at the federal, state and local levels apparently slowed the response, though exactly what went wrong has yet to be determined.

The 109-page report on Pam, dated Sept. 20, 2004, and provided by a participant in the exercise, addresses many of these issues.

The simulation imagined a grim scenario even worse than Katrina: A slow-moving Category 3 hurricane strikes the New Orleans area, overtopping levees and causing 10-12 feet of flooding in New Orleans and the entire east bank metro area.

Katrina's flood waters spared most of Jefferson Parish and parts of New Orleans.

In the simulation, 61,290 people die, including 24,250 in New Orleans. An additional 384,000 are injured or fall ill.

The exercise grew out of an initiative at the Federal Emergency Management Agency started early in the Bush presidency to develop plans for the worst possible disasters that could hit the United States.

The initiative was sidelined for a time after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but moved forward last year. According to a federal document outlining the Louisiana project released by congressional Democrats Friday, "FEMA and the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness believe that the gravity of the situation calls for an extraordinary level of advance planning to improve government readiness to respond effectively to such an event."

The document says that once complete, the Louisiana plan was to be used as a model for plans for other extreme disasters, including terrorist strikes.

The Pam simulation was meticulously designed and run by a private contractor, Baton Rouge-based Innovative Emergency Management, Inc.

"We were still fairly early in the process" of developing a formal response plan for New Orleans, said IEM president Madhu Beriwal. "This was part of FEMA's initiative for doing catastrophic disaster planning. New Orleans was picked as the first place to be studied."

The Pam exercise had over 270 participants from federal, regional and local agencies, Beriwal said. Officials gathered at Louisiana's Office of Emergency Preparedness in Baton Rouge and were presented with a hurricane scenario designed by Louisiana State University researchers.

"It was a slow-moving Category 3 storm, something that could quite easily happen, and designed so that it totally flooded the city, so that the participants could try to understand the full impacts of a flooded New Orleans," said Ivor Van Heerden, an LSU professor who used computer modeling to help create a realistic hurricane.

"In many affected parishes, a high percentage of the population remained in the parish at landfall, resulting in high numbers of fatalities and non-fatal injuries," the report says. "Transportation will be limited due to flooded roadways and a shortage of resources such as fuel. There is no medical treatment within the affected area. Local resources will be exhausted. . communications networks are non-functioning."

The Pam scenario envisioned other problems now confronting New Orleans as well.

The report says area health services and schools would be out of commission, more than 600,000 area homes would be destroyed, and described what it calls the "HazMat gumbo" in the streets that would render the area unlivable for at least a year.

"An estimated 710,808 households in the affected area have released 236,936 cubic yards of household hazardous waste into the still-rising floodwaters. Floating coffins appear sporadically in flooded areas, totaling as many as 500. Some subsurface tanks, possibly containing fuel, have buckled or breached the pavement. Many water surfaces . have a visible sheen due to chemicals," the description reads.

The report was not perfectly on the mark.

The number of dead from Hurricane Katrina, though not yet counted, appears to be significantly lower than Pam's hypothetical death toll, for example. The report also does not contemplate the widespread looting and disorder that erupted in the days after Katrina. Beriwal said that subject was supposed to come up in a later meeting.

During the simulation, participants broke into groups and tried to devise responses as the disaster scenario unfolded. For example, one group of about 25 officials focused on debris removal as Pam's floodwaters dropped, coordinating requests for assistance from local governments the with the Army Corps of Engineers, said Art Jones, the chief of the disaster recovery division for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

The final Pam report outlines in minute detail 15 subjects that emergency managers should address during and after a catastrophic storm hitting New Orleans. They range from the mundane, such as where to billet emergency responders, to core issues such as rescue operations, medical treatment, and housing for displaced people.

It assumes a high degree of coordination between federal, state, and local officials - something that has been a thorny issue in Katrina. But Jones said the Pam exercise was valuable simply because it drew everyone involved together to sit down face-to-face - something that is paying off now.

The report recommends a massive mobilization of transportation assets to evacuate the region after the hurricane has passed, another problem that plagued response last week. "A major limiting factor in executing this plan will be a shortage of transportation facilities," it says.

For example, it says that 400 buses per day would be needed to transport an estimated half-million storm victims out of the affected area to temporary medical facilities set up some distance away. Katrina victims waited for days for buses or other transport out of the city.

*John McQuaid is a staff reporter with the Times-Picauyne newspaper, New Orleans in which this assount was originally published.

He can be reached at or at 202-383-7889

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