Experts: New Orleans disaster was predicted

Projections made in 2004 laid out what would happen if the levees failed. Should the city have been better prepared?

Tech Industry
Virtually everything that has happened in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck was predicted by experts and in computer models, so emergency management specialists wonder why authorities were so unprepared.

"The scenario of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans was well anticipated, predicted and drilled around," said Clare Rubin, an emergency management consultant who also teaches at the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University.

Computer models developed at Louisiana State University and other institutions made detailed projections of what would happen if water flowed over the levees protecting the city or if they failed.

In July 2004, more than 40 federal, state, local and volunteer organizations practiced this very scenario in a five-day simulation code-named "Hurricane Pam," where they had to deal with an imaginary storm that destroyed over half a million buildings in New Orleans and forced the evacuation of a million residents.

At the end of the exercise, Ron Castleman, regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared: "We made great progress this week in our preparedness efforts.

"Disaster response teams developed action plans in critical areas such as search and rescue, medical care, sheltering, temporary housing, school restoration and debris management. These plans are essential for quick response to a hurricane but will also help in other emergencies," he said.

In light of that, said disaster expert Bill Waugh of Georgia State University, "it's inexplicable how unprepared for the flooding they were." He said a slow decline over several years in funding for emergency management was partly to blame.

In comments on Thursday, President Bush said, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

But Louisiana State University engineer Joseph Suhayda and others have warned for years that defenses could fail. In 2002, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a five-part series on "The Big One," examining what might happen if they did.

It predicted that 200,000 people or more would be unwilling or unable to heed evacuation orders and that thousands would die. It also predicted that people would be housed in the Superdome, that aid workers would find it difficult to gain access to the city as roads became impassable, as well as many other of the consequences that actually unfolded after Katrina hit this week.

Craig Marks, who runs Blue Horizons Consulting, an emergency management training company in North Carolina, said the authorities had mishandled the evacuation, neglecting to help those without transportation to leave the city.

"They could have packed people on trains or buses and gotten them out before the hurricane struck. They had enough time and access to federal funds. And now, we find we do not have a proper emergency communications infrastructure, so aid workers get out into the field and they can't talk to one another," he said.

Most of those trapped by the floods in the city of some 500,000 people are the poor who had little chance to leave.

Ernest Sternberg, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Buffalo, said law enforcement agencies were often more eager to invest in high-tech "toys" than basic communications.

"It's well known that communications go down in disasters, but people on the front lines still don't invest in them," he said. "A lot of the investments that have been made in homeland security have been misspent."

Several experts also believe the decision to make FEMA a part of the Department of Homeland Security, created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was a major mistake. Rubin said FEMA functioned well in the 1990s as a small, independent agency.

"Under DHS, it was downgraded, buried in a couple of layers of bureaucracy, and terrorism prevention got all the attention and most of the funds," she said.

Former FEMA director James Lee Witt testified to Congress in March 2004: "I am extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded.

"I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders, and first responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared. In fact, one state emergency manager told me, 'It is like a stake has been driven into the heart of emergency management,'" he said.

Underlying the situation has been the general reluctance of government at any level to invest in infrastructure or emergency management, said David McEntire, who teaches emergency management at the University of North Texas.

"No one cares about disasters until they happen," he said. "That is a political fact of life."

"Emergency management is woefully underfunded in this nation. That covers not only first responders but also warning, evacuation, damage assessment, volunteer management, donation management and recovery and mitigation issues," he said.

Story Copyright © 2005 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

Close
Drag
Autoplay: ON Autoplay: OFF