Natural Hazards Observer

November 2005
Volume XXX | Number 2

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Focus on Hurricane Katrina

Hurricanes Pam and Katrina:
A Lesson in Disaster Planning

In the aftermath of 9/11, we were shocked and asked, “How could somebody do this to us?” Four years later, in the aftermath of Katrina, we similarly ask, “How could this happen to us?” Hurricane Katrina is the largest natural disaster to strike the United States in decades. Despite that fact, the immediate response to this gargantuan event left us collectively outraged and ashamed.

The 9/11 tragedy came like a bolt from the blue. Despite the ominous winds that first reached our shores in 1993—with the first bombing of the World Trade Center—most Americans did not know of the gathering wave of extreme religious hatred that was fast morphing into a killer event. But those who tracked such events issued warnings and the intelligence community and the Defense Science Board, among others, had expressed concerns about terrorism and the ability to detect and deter it. In September 1999, the U.S. Commission on National Security (the Hart-Rudman Commission) issued its Phase 1 Report on the threat of terrorism, predicting that “America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland, and our military superiority will not entirely protect us….States, terrorists, and other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption, and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.”(1) In the weeks after 9/11, once the initial shock passed, focus turned to this report and what it had revealed about terrorism.

Hurricane Katrina was not without its warning signs as well. As a general rule, the disaster research community is much more confident in its ability to predict natural disasters. For the past several decades, when discussion turned to catastrophic natural events, the community could easily rattle off a short list of the most vulnerable locations in the United States. This list would invariably include such events as an earthquake in Northern California or the Midwest, a tsunami along the Pacific Northwest Coast, or a killer hurricane in Miami or New Orleans. In a sense, such events are easier to foretell: there is a historical record of catastrophic natural events that provides clues to location-specific vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, when Katrina finally hit New Orleans, everyone—including those of us who were well-acquainted with the vulnerability of that region—could hardly believe that the so-often predicted “Big One” had finally come.

As 9/11 focused attention on the Hart-Rudman Commission’s investigation, Hurricane Katrina generated considerable interest in a smaller, more modest predictor—the Hurricane Pam planning documents. These documents outline action plans developed by federal, state, and parish planners and operational personnel in Louisiana for a hypothetical catastrophic hurricane named Pam. The action plans were developed in a series of planning workshops that date back to July 2004. Over the course of a year, 80 to 300 participants met and discussed how to respond to Hurricane Pam in a series of structured sessions. The latest of these workshops was held August 23 and 24—not even a week before Katrina made landfall.

Why the interest in Hurricane Pam? Hurricane Pam was envisioned as a slow-moving category 3 hurricane that makes landfall to the west of the city of New Orleans. Over twenty inches (50.8 cm) of rainfall and storm surge result in 10-20 feet (3-6 m) of water in the city—some from overtopping of levees. In the weeks leading to the July 2004 planning exercise, the National Weather Service assisted by mocking up the same weather charts and products for Hurricane Pam that are typically developed for real storms. These products created a ground-truth backdrop that fostered increased realism for the nearly 300 participants in the July 2004 planning workshop.

Innovative Emergency Management’s (IEM) technical professionals calculated and established a series of consequences that they believed would result from Pam’s winds, storm surges, and rain. The following consequences topped the list:

  • Evacuation of the 13-parish area
  • 55,000 people in shelters outside the region prior to landfall
  • One million people displaced after the storm
  • 230,000 children out of school
  • 500 miles of flooded roads and one major bridge collapse
  • 12.5 million tons of debris
  • Almost 250,000 cubic yards of hazardous household waste
  • Inoperability of the metropolitan area’s sewage system
  • 80 percent of structures affected: from minor wind damage to total structural collapse
  • $40 billion in damage to residential and commercial structures

The predicted consequences also included over 175,000 injured, over 200,000 ill, and over 60,000 dead. The resemblance of Hurricane Pam to Hurricane Katrina is close—but, fortunately not too close.

The effectiveness of the consequence predictions is the result of a collaboration between the research community, local emergency management practitioners in the New Orleans region, and private-sector technology implementers. IEM started with information from the research community—behavioral research on how people respond to hurricanes, empirical data on sheltering tendencies, etc.—and melded it with the expectations and knowledge of emergency managers in the local parishes. The intent was to create a “worst-case but plausible event” that could be used to drive action planning.

Against the backdrop of this scenario and these mind-numbing consequences, officials from federal, state, and local agencies created a set of action plans. These plans are based on the notion of Incident Action Plans—one of the key facets of the National Incident Management System. The language of the Hurricane Pam action plans is immediate, simple, and intuitive. In an eerie premonition of Hurricane Katrina, the action plans lay out the action sequences expected in unwatering New Orleans; searching for and rescuing thousands of stranded residents; caring for and treating hundreds of thousands of ill, injured, and dazed; and many other crucial missions.

The question to be asked is, why has there been such a visceral response to the Hurricane Pam report? Perhaps the answer lies in another question, when was the last time you read the echo of a real event in an emergency plan? As we explore the lessons learned during Katrina, we hope that the value of planning exercises such as Hurricane Pam will not be lost. It created a set of action plans that continues to be in demand by response agencies and officials five weeks after the storm’s initial impact.

But, there were other facets of Katrina that were more intractable and unknown. These are ripe for continued research, dialogue, and collaboration. Among the unanswered questions are the following:

  • Why and how do rumors transmit through a community and what impact do they have on the effectiveness of the response?
  • What factors could cause some emergency officials to abandon their posts during people’s hours of need and how could this problem be mitigated?
  • What is the chain of events that leads to lawlessness?
  • Where is the fine line between looting and survival activities?
  • How and why would the victims of an event turn against other victims?

The response to Hurricane Katrina is still ongoing. The wounds of Hurricane Katrina are still fresh. Many of us at IEM who live and work in Louisiana and call it home are still grieving. We lived our quiet lives in Baton Rouge, knowing that the excitement, color, and joie de vivre of New Orleans—the City that Care Forgot—lay within easy reach, a scant 70 miles straight down the interstate to the south and east. In the hours after Katrina, the interstate traffic message boards in Baton Rouge carried the blinking epithet, terrible in its simplicity: “All Routes to New Orleans Closed.”

It is inevitable that because there was a Hurricane Pam report there will be greater soul-searching on what the true lessons of Katrina are—for both emergency management and homeland security. In the months ahead, these lessons will be debated and decided in many venues. We owe it to ourselves as a nation to leave no stone unturned to find all the facts and implement the lessons learned for a more disaster-resistant nation. In this search, we all have a role to play—researchers, technologists, and practitioners. Play it well.

Madhu Beriwal
Innovative Emergency Management

(1) The United States Commission on National Security/21st Century. 1999. New World Coming: American Security in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The United States Commission on National Security/21st Century.

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