Senators slam White House over storm alert
1/24/2006, 2:40 p.m. CT
By LARA JAKES JORDAN
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Senators lambasted the Bush administration on Tuesday for failing to heed devastating predictions from a hurricane preparedness test that began a year before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast.
The top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also accused the White House of trying to block or delay the panel's inquiry into the government's sluggish response to Katrina.
The preparedness exercise that began in July 2004, dubbed Hurricane Pam, warned that a Category 3 storm would overwhelm the New Orleans area with flood waters, killing up to 60,000 people and destroying buildings and roads. State and federal officials were concluding Pam's findings when Katrina, an actual Category 4 storm, roared ashore on Aug. 29.
"As a dry run for the real thing, Pam should have been a wake-up call that could not be ignored," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chair of the Senate committee's examination of Pam's findings at a Tuesday hearing. "Instead, it is apparent that a more appropriate name for Pam should have been 'Cassandra' — the mythical prophet who warned of disasters but whom no one believed."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said Pam gave the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Homeland Security Department "explicit notice" that a catastrophic storm in New Orleans would require urgent aid from Washington to state and local response officials.
"But despite these warnings from Pam, preparations for Hurricane Katrina were shockingly poor," said Lieberman.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the administration is conducting a lessons learned review and "I'm not going to do a play-by-play analysis."
"And we've also been taking steps to make sure we prevent some of those problems that occurred from recurring in future response efforts," McClellan said. "And that's what we'll continue to do."
A month before Katrina hit, state and federal officials working on the Pam exercise estimated that government plans to evacuate people from New Orleans were only 10 percent complete.
"If you think soup lines in the Depression were long, wait till you see lines" at collection points in New Orleans, Transportation Department regional emergency officer Don Day said at a July 29 briefing with federal and state authorities. Notes of the briefing, as recorded by Baton Rouge-based contractors Innovative Emergency Management Inc., were examined at the hearing.
"We're at less than 10 percent done with this ... planning when you consider the buses and the people," Day said at the briefing.
Lieberman also accused the White House of trying to stall a Senate investigation into the government's response to Katrina by failing to produce requested documents and prohibiting federal officials from answering questions. The inquiry is scheduled to be completed in March.
"This assertion of a kind of virtual immunity of the White House from this inquiry has obviously frustrated our committee's ability to learn and tell the full story of Katrina," Lieberman said. "In my opinion, it is unacceptable."
However, Lieberman noted, the committee did receive an e-mail sent to the White House Situation Room hours before Katrina hit, warning that the storm's surge could breach levees and leave New Orleans flooded for weeks or months.
The e-mail included an Aug. 28 report by the Homeland Security Department's National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center, which concluded that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane would cause severe damage in the city, including power outages and a direct economic hit of up to $10 billion for the first week.
"Overall, the impacts described herein are conservative," stated the report, which was sent to Homeland Security's office for infrastructure protection.
"Any storm rated Category 4 or greater ... will likely lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching, leaving the New Orleans metro area submerged for weeks or months," said the report.
The documents are the latest indication that the federal government knew beforehand of the catastrophic damage that a storm of Katrina's magnitude could cause. The Bush administration has been lambasted for its lackluster response to Katrina and its aftermath, including criticism that the government should have known a hurricane of that strength posed a danger to the area's levees and was unprepared to cope with it.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said he was not familiar with the documents but that the levees situation was one likely reason the government urged an evacuation of New Orleans before the storm hit.
"We're in the process of participating in a large after-action report," Knocke said. "We're deeply committed to finding out what worked and didn't work, and apply those lessons learned going forward."