Sept. 4, 2005 – Failing a test is one thing, but failing a test after you have been given the answers is another type of failure altogether â€“ especially when half a million lives rely on your ability to pass.
Last summer, having identified a hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the gravest potential disasters faced by the US public, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) staged a mock storm scenario and brought dozens of government agencies together for planning.
During the five-day exercise, FEMA envisioned that the fictitious category 3 "Hurricane Pam" slammed into New Orleans, deluging the area in enough water to top the levees and flood the city. Groups representing approximately 50 government agencies worked out action plans in July 2004 to deal with search and rescue, establishing shelters, debris clean-up, pumping water out of the city and even getting schools back up and running after the storm.
Though officials involved in the scenario acknowledged that tens of thousands of residents would be without the means to evacuate New Orleans in the absence of government help, the Hurricane Pam scenario teams did not determine strategies for evacuating people ahead of time. Instead, officials predicted that only one-third of the cityâ€™s residents would make it out in time and designed their response plan around that assumption.
At the end of the assessment, FEMA Regional Director Ron Castleman announced, "We made great progress this week in our preparedness efforts."
Officials also pledged that hurricane planning would continue. Colonel Michael L. Brown, deputy at the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, put it this way: "Over the next 60 days, we will polish the action plans developed during the Hurricane Pam exercise. We have also determined where to focus our efforts in the future."
It is apparent from the general action plan released after the Hurricane Pam exercise and interviews with the press at the time that over a year before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, local, state and federal agencies were aware of the challenges they would face if a storm flooded the city.
For instance, they anticipated that failure to completely evacuate the entire city ahead of the storm would pose deadly consequences for those left behind. They also predicted that tens of thousands of residents would not leave the city, even under a mandatory evacuation order, because they would lack transportation. And they foresaw that those who stayed and managed to survive the winds and the flooding would be without emergency relief for several days.
Brown said that even if the action plan played out perfectly, the government would not be able to respond to all of peopleâ€™s needs in the event of a storm like the hypothetical Pam.
"Residents need to know they'll be on their own for several days in a situation like this," Brown said in a July 2004 interview with the New Orleans based Times Times-Picayune.
Though the Pam scenario plans did not address pre-emptive evacuation assistance, New Orleans officials told the Times-Picayune in July of this year that they would dedicate 64 city buses and 10 lift vans, as well as potentially school buses and Amtrak trains, to help people flee the city in the event of a serious hurricane threat. But they also acknowledged that would not meet the potential need.
According to the Louisiana Transit Resource Guide, a state-government website, New Orleans has 364 city buses in its fleet. Why officials did not plan to dedicate more buses to an evacuation effort was not explained to the Times-Picayune.
Instead, in July, public officials began videotaping messages for distribution by DVD warning residents to begin making their own advance plans for emergency evacuation in case of a hurricane. According to the Times-Picayune, the messages, which were to be released this September, informed New Orleans residents that they were to be largely responsible for their own safety.
"The primary message is that each person is primarily responsible for themselves, for their own family and friends," said Rev. Marshall Truehill in an interview with the Times-Picayune. Truehill heads Total Community Action, an anti-poverty organization orchestrating the videos.
The day before Hurricane Katrina stormed ashore, New Orleans Mayer Ray Nagin, in his mandatory evacuation order, granted city officials the authority to "commandeer any private property, including, but not limited toâ€¦ vehicles that may be used to transport people out the area."
Despite this self-mandate, the city failed to actually provide a way out for those trapped with few resources and limited options.