Lessons in Disaster
Hurricane Katrina went off like a bomb with a slow fuse.
At 5:30 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, strong winds, tornadoes and surging waters laid siege to the levees that protected the city of New Orleans. At 7 a.m., just 90 minutes later, the storm surge tore a 200-yard-wide hole in the Industrial Canal levee. People that had remained in that part of the city, Ward 9, began to drown.
“We had more than 600 9-1-1 calls within 23 minutes,” Warren J. Riley, superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs in testimony given six months later.
Almost all of the dispatchers and 9-1-1 operators were crying, continued Riley. He described the cries for help:
“My babies can’t swim!”
“My husband has drowned. Please help me.”
“The water’s to my neck, and I can’t swim!”
“Oh my God, the wind just blew my husband off the roof!”
Over the next two weeks, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused a catastrophe of epic proportions, killing more than 1,300 people and destroying $80 billion in property across a 90,000-square-mile swath of the United States, an area roughly the size of Great Britain.
As the nation struggles to develop preparedness plans equal to the terrorist threats that have emerged in the early years of the 21st century, disasters such as Katrina and Rita are being studied by state and local first responders and emergency management officials in hopes of learning more about preparing to respond to a large- scale terrorist attack. “There is a linkage between preparedness for hurricanes and terrorism,” says Col. Terry Ebbert, director of Homeland security in Orleans Parish.
The lessons concern:
Maintaining critical infrastructure: Planning must include regular periodic evaluations of critical infrastructure — such as levees — in light of potential threats.
Building evacuation capability: Despite the problems encountered in evacuating the city of New Orleans, other Louisiana jurisdictions have begun to solve the problems associated with evacuating large populations.
Maintaining communications: Once again, communications technology did not interoperate before it failed altogether.
Modeling catastrophic scenarios: The capabilities of modern science can empower the process of preparing to respond to natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
Reporting to one incident commander: Command and control problems grew out of the presence of multiple jurisdictions on the scene.
Maintaining critical infrastructure
Would Katrina have flooded New Orleans had the levees not failed? While that is an arguable point — another theory suggests that the storm surge would have overtopped the levees anyway — the fact remains that the levees failed when they should not have.
In testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in February, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said: “Our people entrusted their lives and property to levees designed more than 40 years ago. It was like we expected a worn out 1965 Chevy to pass 2006 safety and inspection standards. It is long past time to upgrade. We must replace false security with a reliable 21st century hurricane protection system based on the most innovative scientific and technological advances.”
Just as New Orleans levees had aged, so have other components of the nation’s critical infrastructure — bridges, tunnels, water systems and other utility systems — that might become the target of terrorist attacks.
Building evacuation capability
While New Orleans may deserve criticism for failing to evacuate more people from the city, state and local officials in the parishes struck by Katrina did manage to evacuate 1.3 million people in about 30 hours.
Contra flow — using all lanes of major routes to evacuate vehicles — has helped Louisiana to become effective at evacuation. For example, Interstate 10 runs both east and west from New Orleans. When the evacuation order was given, the western branch of I-10 carried all traffic west, on both east and west lanes. Likewise the eastern branch of I-10 carried all traffic east, along both east and west lanes.
Louisiana has been practicing contra flow since 1998 when it was first tested during Hurricane Georges. In 2004, Louisiana fully implemented contra flow before Hurricane Ivan. It caused a massive 15-hour traffic jam. The system was re-engineered before Katrina arrived. Officials added new loading and unloading points and coordinated traffic flowing east toward Mississippi with traffic flowing west under Mississippi’s contra flow plan. The revised system worked well.
Other key evacuation techniques include planning for the elderly and disabled, for visitors without cars, and for pets, Louisiana emergency response experts say.
In Plaquemines Parish, Jesse St. Amant, director of Homeland security and emergency preparedness for the parish, oversaw the evacuation of approximately 28,000 people. Plaquemines Parish is a peninsula that juts into the Gulf of Mexico, just south of New Orleans. Only 240 people decided not to evacuate the peninsula — two of them died.
St. Amant spends much of the year preparing his parish for evacuations. “Several times a year, we find out how many people have special needs and where they are,” he says. “We advertise in the newspaper and run commercials on cable television. Our health department pre-screens those that respond. We counsel people and tell them what to take with them. We also provide transportation and a caregiver.”
When the time comes, ambulances and school buses help move people that need assistance. Homeland security officials say that at any given time, 20,000 to 30,000 business people and tourists may have come to the region by way of airlines. Local government officials work with the airlines to make sure they have air transportation before the storm hits.
St. Amant also evacuates pets. “We collect the animals and have voluntary organizations build a kennel to look after the pets for two months,” he says. “When we take care of the animals, it makes it easier for people to leave. “
According to estimates, 80 percent to 90 percent of the people in the region evacuated. But many stayed behind, especially in New Orleans. “We need more planning in this area to make sure that no one is left behind,” says Mark Smith, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in Baton Rouge.
Col. Ebbert, Orleans Parish’s director of Homeland security, believes that improving security before and after an event will help boost evacuation percentages. “If you own a house or a business, you may not leave if you don’t believe that the authorities will protect your home, store or office from looting,” he says.
For the 2006 hurricane season, Ebbert arranged with state authorities to put 3,000 National Guard troops into New Orleans 50 hours before the estimated landfall of a hurricane that required an evacuation. “Before we ask people to move, they would see the National Guard throughout the city,” he says. “The Guard trained with our police all year long on weekends. We assigned them to particular districts. And we pre-staged all of their equipment in the Convention Center.
“You can adapt these ideas to other kinds of incidents — a leaking chlorine barge on the river, for example,” whether caused by an accident or a terrorist attack.
Ebbert also points out that evacuating because of an approaching hurricane differs from evacuating because of a terrorist attack. In the first case, people are angry, disappointed and distraught. In the second case, they will be running for their lives and perhaps inclined toward panic. “I think it would be wise to develop a national rail transportation plan as a component of evacuation,” he says. “I also think we need to consider a national sheltering plan.”
Some of Katrina’s lessons have been taught before — but apparently they were not learned. Communications, for example: How often has a communications breakdown or the lack of interoperable communications hindered the efforts of first responders? “We had total communications failure,” says St. Amant. “You cannot manage a crisis without communications. Cell phones, satellite phones, 800 MHz radio systems, microwave radio systems — none of them functioned.”
In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, F. G. Dowden, the regional liaison for the New Orleans Department of Homeland Security and Public Safety, indicated communications with state and federal agencies was, in most cases, limited to a few landlines, satellite phones and data links during Katrina.
“Prior to Hurricane Katrina, we had more than 70 first-responder agencies operating over myriad disparate voice radio communications systems within the region,” Dowden said.
Addressing the same committee, Blanco said: “If you can’t communicate, you can’t coordinate. In Louisiana, we are working to acquire mobile command units and develop a statewide interoperable solution that incorporates the entire emergency community.”
Modeling catastrophic scenarios
In 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded a contract for the development of computer-modeled catastrophic scenarios to Baton Rouge-based Innovative Emergency Management Inc. (IEM). Under the contract, IEM would develop scenarios keyed to various locations around the country. First responders would plan against these scenarios.
During the first of these sessions, a computer modeled what would happen if a catastrophic hurricane called Pam struck New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana.
Unlike conventional planning scenarios, the Hurricane Pam model envisioned specific results for first responders to focus on. A conventional scenario might imagine a hurricane carrying a lot of rain that would cause flooding and drive many people into public shelters. The Hurricane Pam model called for specifics: 20 inches of rain that would overtop the levees, flood New Orleans and leave it under 10 to 20 feet of water. As a result 55,000 people would move to public shelters prior to landfall.
As it turned out, Hurricane Katrina brought 18 inches of rain, breached the levees, caused 20 feet of flooding in some areas of New Orleans and drove 60,000 people into public shelters. In fact, the consequences of the computer-modeled Pam virtually matched those of Katrina in 11 of 19 different categories.
The Pam model projected 786,359 people in Louisiana would lose electricity when the storm made landfall. The day after Katrina struck, 881,400 people reported power outages. The Pam model calculated that 233,986 buildings would collapse. Katrina destroyed 250,000 homes.
The parallels seem eerie, but they may represent the greatest lesson from Katrina: “We need more realism in exercises and planning, and today, we have the science to be realistic,” says Madhu Beriwal, president and CEO of IEM.
Beriwal explains that realism is important because effective planning requires specificity. Emergency managers will deal with public sheltering needs one way for 60,000 people and another way for 5,000.
If a couple hundred people need to be rescued, first responders might say that their own boats, helicopters and personnel will be able to do the job. If 5,000 people need rescuing, the governor may have to call a neighboring state for help. First responders and planners must craft a response that matches the problem. They can’t learn to do that without drilling against specific scenarios.
Report to one boss
New Orleans and Louisiana officials struggled with command and control during Katrina, Ebbert says. Multiple command centers dotted the state. FEMA set up shop in New Orleans in one location. The National Guard had their headquarters at another location. The Department of Defense was in still another location. The state authorities operated out of Baton Rouge.
“If we follow NIMS (National Incident Management System), someone has to be in charge of any area-wide response,” Ebbert says. “Does a local entity have any control over the National Guard sent by the Governor? No. So if they want to set up across the street from me, that is what they do. That holds true for any agency. But we have to decide who will be in charge.”
How important are the lessons Katrina taught about preparedness and emergency response? A recent National Plan Review conducted by the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Transportation found that preparedness in the states and in 75 of the nation’s largest urban areas is nowhere close to adequate. According to the Review:
Current emergency operations plans are inadequate for managing catastrophic events.
States and urban areas are not conducting adequate collaborative planning.
Assumptions in basic plans do not adequately address catastrophic events or the continuity of government.
The most common deficiency is the absence of a clearly defined command structure.
Communications systems and procedures need to be improved.
Special needs populations, including the elderly and people with disabilities, are not being addressed.
There are significant weaknesses in evacuation planning.
The capabilities for receiving and caring for large numbers of evacuees are inadequate.
Plans do not adequately define resources or conduct resource inventories.
Studying the lessons learned by first responders experienced with hurricanes and other natural disasters may help to improve performance in all of these areas.