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NEW ORLEANS IN CHAOS: Disaster proves warnings true

Alan Judd - Staff

Friday, September 2, 2005

Hurricane Pam was the big one. With 120 mph winds and 20 inches of rain, it breached New Orleans' aged levees, flooded half a million buildings and stranded thousands of residents in a ruined city below sea level.

Unlike Hurricane Katrina, though, Pam wasn't real. It was a computer-generated exercise that provided the latest confirmation of what researchers, disaster planners and engineers have contended for decades: New Orleans needed a better response plan for a catastrophic hurricane.

Years of conferences and computer models and animated simulations and disaster drills had made it clear what could happen if a major storm struck southeastern Louisiana.

Still, when Katrina hit this week, disaster authorities were, by all appearances, horribly ill-prepared.

Officials couldn't get tens of thousands of residents to leave vulnerable coastal regions before the storm, despite mandatory evacuation orders. In New Orleans, many people were sent to a shelter of last resort, the Superdome. Conditions there quickly became untenable: no food, no water, no electricity, no medical care, no working restrooms.

With hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people dead, and with relief slow in coming, the city descended Thursday into what the New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune, called "mayhem and madness." The city's mayor, Ray Nagin, issued "a desperate SOS" for help.

Such chaos, hurricane experts said in interviews Thursday, was both predictable and preventable.

"We pretty much knew this would happen somewhere along the line," Gregory W. Stone, director of the Coastal Studies Institute at Louisiana State University, said Thursday. He is among the scientists who have issued dire warnings for years.

"A lot of that has not been taken seriously" by the federal government, Stone said. "That's a regrettable thing to say."

U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, concurred.

The government has shown "not much of a commitment to this issue," Thompson said. Congress will investigate whether the suffering caused by Katrina could have been avoided, or at least mitigated, he said.

"Why aren't we prepared for that kind of occurrence?"

No evacuation plans

When the University of New Orleans surveyed the city's residents about their personal hurricane evacuation plans last year, it found that many people had no plan at all.

More than one in five of those surveyed said they would stay at home, even during a major storm. Researchers estimated that at least 100,000 New Orleans residents had no means to evacuate: no car, not enough money for airfare or a bus ticket, no friends or family to help them leave town.

"They knew they were going to have a large number of people who weren't going to be able to get out on their own," said Jay Baker, a geography professor who studies hurricanes at Florida State University.

But authorities apparently never put plans in place to evacuate them before a storm. Instead, a day before Katrina hit, the city opened its massive stadium, the Superdome, as a shelter of last resort --- nothing more, Baker said, than "a place for people to have a better chance to survive than if they stayed in their homes."

It quickly became obvious that the Superdome was far from an ideal shelter.

"Putting 20,000 to 30,000 people into a facility that will surely lose power and therefore lose air conditioning and lights, not to mention begin to get flooded, is not something that's very appropriate," LSU's Stone said. "These people are trapped like rats."

No one, he said, seemed to consider how quickly conditions at the stadium would deteriorate.

Authorities have begun busing New Orleans' refugees to another indoor stadium, the Astrodome in Houston. But meanwhile, reports from the Superdome and another nearby shelter depicted virtual anarchy: fighting, filth and bodies of the dead left untended.

"We need to be able to streamline how we move from the occurrence of the disaster to relief," said Thompson, the Mississippi congressman. "We probably could have moved more people in faster. That probably means more military people."

Hurricane experts say shelters should have been opened outside New Orleans, both for the storm and the duration of the recovery. Officials say New Orleans could be uninhabitable for six months.

After the Hurricane Pam exercise in July 2004, authorities said the New Orleans area would need shelters for just 100 days after a catastrophic storm. Once the drill was complete, the Federal Emergency Management Agency hired a consulting firm to develop recommendations. Well into the second hurricane season since the drill, no final report from the firm has been publicly released.

Budget cut complaints

On ABC-TV Thursday, President Bush acknowledged the "frustration" of New Orleans residents, but said, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

In fact, such a failure has been forecast for years.

Since 2000, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been studying the idea of reinforcing the levees to withstand a Category 5 storm, the strongest on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. The 300 miles of existing levees, at 17 feet, were designed to protect New Orleans --- parts of which are as much as 10 feet below sea level --- from no more than a Category 3 hurricane.

"We certainly understood the potential impact of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane," Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the Corps' chief of engineers, told reporters Thursday in a telephone briefing.

Last spring, the Army engineers' New Orleans office complained that budget cuts proposed by the Bush administration and approved by Congress "will prevent the Corps from addressing these pressing needs."

Thompson said the Corps' arguments contain "significant merit."

"What concerns me is the fact that for the last several budgets, the president has pretty much zeroed out a lot of the Corps' work," Thompson said. "We [in Congress] always had to go back in and try to help. I have not seen flood control as a real priority in this president's budgets."

The levee construction is one of two massive public works projects that hurricane experts say could have protected New Orleans from Katrina.

Since 1990, Louisiana's congressional delegation has sought funding --- a total of $14 billion --- to restore the state's coastal marshes and barrier islands. Scientists say the marshes and islands act as a first line of defense for New Orleans and the region's other populated areas by absorbing much of a storm's force.

Built to prevent incessant flooding, the New Orleans levees also interrupted the natural flow of water to the marshes south of the city. Before the levees were built, that flow carried sediment that could restore the wetlands, which are under constant barrage from waves and wind.

According to LSU's Hurricane Center, which has studied the matter extensively, more than 1 million acres of wetlands have disappeared since 1930. LSU scientists estimate that the area is losing 28,000 acres a year --- the equivalent of a football field every half hour.

"At the start of every new hurricane season on June 1," Stone said, "Louisiana has become more vulnerable to storm surge inundation and surge damage than it was the previous hurricane season."

Yet, 15 years after the restoration began, Congress has appropriated just $540 million of the $14 billion needed to complete the project.

"This is a regrettable demonstration of ignoring the magnitude of the problem," Stone said. "That could well have retarded some of the water finding its way" into the city.

"What's been missing is a sense of urgency," said U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), a longtime proponent of coastal restoration. After Katrina, he said, "hopefully, it will help us convince people who weren't convinced before."

Some scientists, along with public officials, have questioned whether the project's benefits would be worth its cost.

Stone, referring to some of the worst casualty estimates, put it in starker terms: "How do you weigh the economic value against four or five or six thousand deaths?"

Staff writer Julia Malone in Washington contributed to this article.

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In the final analysis, no one will escape blame for this catastrophe, from the residents who would not leave, to the city for not having an evacuation plan for those who could not leave on their own, to the government agencies slow to react, to Congress and the president for short funding the Corps of Engineer projects.

We can only hope that everyone learns from this and gives these preparedness measures the attention they need.

And let's hope they bring in a professional for FEMA. This job is a bit bigger than a guy who supervises judges at Arabian horse competitions.

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