Sunday, October 09, 2005

Meanwhile,back in New Orleans

Apparently it's the storm you don't plan for, that you have to worry about. Which, frankly, is what any trial lawyer will tell you. Right after he tells you the client doesn't pay you to be wrong.

But in the case of a failure of the federal government, who's the client?

In July 1999, the {Army] Corps {of Engineers] held a "command readiness seminar" in New Orleans to discuss the impact of a powerful hurricane hitting the city. It brought together federal, state and local officials to contemplate a storm that would send wind-driven waters surging over the city's network of levees and flood walls.

Afterward, the Corps' Mississippi Valley commander assigned his staff to draft a contingency plan for a catastrophic hurricane in southeastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi. Sometime in 2000 or 2001, the division began drafting a plan to remove the expected 20 feet of water that would fill New Orleans in a major hurricane.

The Corps planners assumed that the water would fill New Orleans by surging over the city's levees rather than through breaches in the levees. As a result, plans were made to cut the levees to allow water to flow back into Lake Pontchartrain. They discussed having material on hand to prevent the notches from widening and to repair the notches when the water level inside the city had reached the level outside, said Mr. Sills.

The failure of the levees during Katrina made this plan impossible to implement until the massive breaks had been plugged.
FEMA did much the same thing in planning it's "worst case scenario:"

The Pam planners – representing FEMA, Louisiana's homeland security agency and Innovative Management – decided to cover New Orleans with 10 to 20 feet of water. Two scenarios were considered for flooding the city: Pam's storm surge would wash over the levees and flood the city; or the levees would breach, allowing water to pour through the holes into New Orleans.

FEMA, in collaboration with others, decided to use the overtopping scenario, not the breach, Ms. Beriwal said. FEMA officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment last week.

"The intent was to create catastrophic flooding conditions," Ms. Beriwal said. "Overtopping did the job just as well as a breach would in that case, because we still had 10-20 feet of water in the city."
Except, of course, when it came, they still didn't seem to know what to do.

Like others involved in Pam, Mr. Sills says participants weren't concerned with how the water got into New Orleans.

"The consequences were there and you had to deal with them," he said. "You still had to do search and rescue and all the things they did with Pam."

Corps and Louisiana state emergency managers say the Pam exercise, whatever its shortcomings, was a major step forward in hurricane preparedness.

"I think if we hadn't done it, you would have seen a lot larger loss of life," said Lt. Col. Doran, operations chief for Louisiana's homeland security agency. "It gave us a road map to work from."

In hindsight, though, Mr. Sills says the Corps' New Orleans levee experts should have been included in the development of Pam and the actual exercise.

The Corps is now in the process of assembling another team of engineers and scientists to study a New Orleans hurricane. This time, however, the team will look back. Its job: to determine why and how the levees failed.
Which leaves us with a question: was the levee breach really that material to the difficulty of the situation, or the problems with the response? I mean, we already knew the response was poor, and we could already conjecture that meant the planning wasn't very good either. But, at this point, we still have people saying, despite the evidence, that they planned for this event.

Hate to see what would have happened if they hadn't; and hard to see how the loss of life would have been worse, except in a case where New Orleans itself decides to simply stay put when the hurricane is in the Gulf. And there, even New Orleans did a better job of evacuating than Houston did. Texas just got lucky that hurricane slowed down, and turned north.

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