Marlyville / Fontainebleau / Broadmoor Preservation
post-Katrina and beyond...









press clipping
Federal report predicted cataclysm
White House had research before Katrina hit land
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
By Bill Walsh
Washington bureau

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 made landfall.

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 U.S. history.

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 worse.

"Overall the impacts described herein are conservative," the report said.

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."

Eerie accuracy

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.

Gut feeling

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 before landfall.

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 or (202) 383-7817.