Federal report predicted cataclysm
White House had research before Katrina hit land
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
By Bill Walsh
WASHINGTON -- As Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast, President
Bush's top disaster agency warned of the likelihood of levee breaches
that could leave New Orleans submerged "for weeks or months," a
communications blackout that would hamper rescue efforts and "at least
100,000 poverty-stricken people" stranded in the city.
Those remarkably accurate predictions were in a 40-page "Fast Analysis
Report" compiled by the Department of Homeland Security on Aug. 28.
Documents show that the report was sent by e-mail to the White House
Situation Room at 1:47 a.m. on Aug. 29, hours before the deadly storm
The report raises an important question: If the highest levels of the
government knew the likely impact of Hurricane Katrina, why was the
initial response so slow and uncoordinated? That is the focus of a
hearing scheduled for today on Capitol Hill by the Senate Homeland
Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has been
investigating the flawed response to the largest natural disaster in
The committee is expected to focus on a mock hurricane-preparedness
exercise known as "Hurricane Pam" conducted early last year by hundreds
of state, local and federal disaster experts. Assuming a hurricane
weaker than Katrina, the Pam exercise nonetheless predicted the same
kind of long-term destruction that Katrina ultimately caused. Although
it projected 60,000 deaths -- the Katrina death toll stands at more than
1,100 -- it said the city would flood, tens of thousands would be
stranded and communications systems would be disabled.
The Hurricane Pam exercise was just one of the warning signals that
officials at all levels of government had about the danger posed by a
major hurricane hitting New Orleans. The Department of Homeland
Security's report shows that red flags were going up in the highest
levels of the Bush administration as well.
Levees 'greatest concern'
Bush's front-line disaster agency, the Federal Emergency Management
Agency, was predicting the worst. In a Power Point slide show dated Aug.
27 and obtained by The Times-Picayune, the agency spelled out the death
and destruction anticipated by Hurricane Pam and warned that Katrina was
likely to be worse.
"Exercise projection is exceeded by Hurricane Katrina real-life
impacts," the slide show said.
Despite the warnings, tens of thousands of New Orleanians were stranded
in the city begging for help, pre-positioned supplies were slow in
arriving, disaster teams were stymied by communications failures, and
state and federal officials spent days arguing over who should control
federal troops that wouldn't be dispatched to New Orleans until nearly a
week after Katrina made landfall.
The Homeland Security report was conducted by the National
Infrastructure Simulation & Analysis Center and focused on Katrina's
likely effect on commerce, emergency response and property damage. It
was written when Katrina was a Category 4 hurricane in the Gulf and
warned that if it worsened, things would be 30 percent to 40 percent
"Overall the impacts described herein are conservative," the report
The report focuses on the disastrous results of levee failure.
"The potential for severe storm surge to overwhelm Lake Pontchartrain
levees is the greatest concern for New Orleans," it said. "Any storm
rated Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson (hurricane) scale will likely
lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching. This could leave the New
Orleans metro area submerged for weeks or months."
Four days later, President Bush said on ABC's "Good Morning America," "I
don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." The White
House quickly clarified the comment saying that the president was
referring to the hours after Katrina swept through and initial news
reports suggested the city had "dodged a bullet."
The levee failures weren't all that the Homeland Security report
anticipated. Assuming Katrina wouldn't strengthen, the report projected
a power loss for more than two weeks for about 2.6 million electricity
customers and longer in the event of significant flooding. It projected
up to $2.2 billion in direct economic losses in the first week, not
including property damage that could be as high as $20 billion. The
report warned of disruptions in communications systems for "days and
weeks" and because of the abundance of oil and gas facilities in the
path of the storm, it predicted "uncertainty and volatility in the price
of crude oil and refined products in the coming weeks."
Although the report doesn't mention the possible loss of life, it
mentions an Associated Press report of Aug. 27 that "at least 100,000
poverty-stricken people in New Orleans do not have access to
transportation to evacuate. The City has suggested using the Superdome
as a shelter of last resort for people who have no cars."
The explicit warning that many people had not been evacuated did little
to ensure that those stranded in the city would have a way out. Gov.
Kathleen Blanco and Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency
Management Agency, spent days rounding up enough buses and drivers
outside the city to rescue those left behind.
Brown, who last week accepted some blame for his role in the Katrina
response, has been widely criticized as out of touch and unprepared. But
transcripts of the daily briefings of disaster officials leading up to
the storm show a more complicated picture.
On Aug. 27 and 28, Brown repeatedly warned state, local and federal
emergency workers on the conference call to expect the worst. "My gut
tells me this is a bad one and a big one," he said on the call the day
Although state and local officials have complained about FEMA red tape
slowing emergency response, Brown urged his colleagues to disregard
cumbersome procedures if necessary.
"I don't want anyone to self-deploy, but be ready to go," he said. "Get
to the edge of that envelope. And in fact, if you feel like (doing
something), go ahead and do it. I'll figure out some way to justify it.
. . . I don't want any of these processes in our way. We're going to do
whatever it takes to help these folks down here."
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Bill Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 383-7817.