New Orleans' Emergency Plan Under Scrutiny
For years, hurricane experts, public officials and emergency planners had warned the country about a hurricane's potential catastrophic consequences in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina, which struck in August 2005, proved them right.
June 2002, the New Orleans Times-Picayune devoted a five-day series
to the threat of a major hurricane hitting the city and its possible
In July 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, conducted a five-day exercise to prepare for the response should a hurricane hit the city.
In October 2004, National Geographic published a story about a hurricane scenario in New Orleans and predicted a fifth of the city would ignore evacuation orders, including "the carless, the homeless, the aged and infirm."
"It's not if it will happen," University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland told National Geographic at the time. "It's when."
Yet when Hurricane Katrina came barreling through New Orleans on Aug. 29, broke two levees and left a flooded city in its wake, the emergency response appeared agonizingly slow. It took days to get food, water and medicine to the tens of thousands of people that had stayed behind either by choice or because they hadn't the means to leave.
Criticism has been levied at all levels of government in the wake of the disaster and raised questions of why so many people who remained in the flooded city had to fend for themselves for days in what appeared to be a breakdown in the system.
New Orleans, like most cities, has an emergency management plan. The plan includes dozens of paragraphs about evacuating residents in the buildup to a major hurricane, noting in one part that the city "will utilize all available resources to quickly and safely evacuate threatened areas."
City officials have said they provided transportation at pick-up points that were publicized on television and the radio before the storm hit, according to the New York Times. Besides the Superdome, officials have said they opened schools and the Convention Center as shelters.
Still, there reportedly was not enough food and water made available to the thousands of evacuees who took shelter at such facilities.
The prospect of tens of thousands of residents ignoring the evacuation order should not have come as a surprise to city officials, said Jay Baker, a geography professor who studies hurricanes at Florida State University, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
A University of New Orleans survey of city residents last year revealed that one in five planned to stay home during a major storm, according to a Sept. 2, 2005 Journal-Constitution report.
"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," Baker said in the article.
City officials had planned to release scripted DVDs in September urging city residents to prepare for a potential hurricane because the city didn't have the resources to evacuate them in the case of a major storm, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported.
"It's important to emphasize that we just don't have the resources to take everybody out," New Orleans Emergency Preparedness Director Joseph Matthews told the Times-Picayune in May 2005.
What role the federal government plays in disasters such as the one that befell New Orleans Aug. 29 was the subject of much debate soon after Hurricane Katrina hit. Some experts have said that when a natural disaster strikes, it is up to the state and local governments to respond, not a federal agency, according to a Sept. 6 ABC News report.
Still, some argue the federal government should have been more proactive in its response.
"If the city and the state are stumbling or in over their head, then it's FEMA's responsibility to show some leadership," said Jerry Hauer, director of public health preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services, according to ABC News.
Terry Ebbert, head of New Orleans' emergency operations, put it more bluntly.
"This is a national disgrace," Ebbert told the Associated Press just days after the storm, as thousands of residents were still stranded in the city. "We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans. We have got a mayor who has been pushing and asking, but we're not getting supplies."
Still, while federal officials have acknowledged the overall response to the storm was unacceptable, Homeland Security Department head Michael Chertoff has said he doesn't know what could have been done better.
"I keep looking back to see if there was anything else we could have done, and I just don't know what it would be," he said, according to the Times-Picayune.
Michael Brown, FEMA's director who ran the initial response to the disaster, also defended the federal response and blamed the unexpected flooding for keeping rescuers out of New Orleans, according to the Washington Post. He said that rescue personnel, equipment and vehicles were waiting outside the city ahead of time.
"What the American people need to understand is that the full force of the federal government is bringing all of those supplies in an unprecedented effort that has not been seen even in the tsunami region," he said, according to the Post. "I was in the tsunami region, and this response is incredibly more efficient, more effective and under the most difficult circumstances."
The scope of the disaster -- a Category 4 hurricane combined with a major levee breach -- was simply too much for emergency responders to cope with, local officials have said.
Johnny Bradberry, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, said, "There is never a contingency plan for something like this," according to the Post.
hurricane and emergency response experts have said the order to
evacuate the city before the storm hit did not come soon enough.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the evacuation some 24 hours
before the storm hit.
The city's emergency plan says the "maximum acceptable hurricane evacuation time standard for a Category 3 storm event [is] 72 hours."
Susan Cutter, an emergency preparedness expert and geography professor at the University of South Carolina, told the New York Times the evacuation order should have come on Thursday or Friday.
"Evacuation is a precaution," she said, according to the Times. "I don't think they would have taken a political hit if they had ordered it, and it helped."
Whenever the order should have come, it has become apparent in the wake of the disaster that a certain percentage of the population was going to remain no matter what.
Martha A. Madden, former secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said while contingency plans dealing with a hurricane Katrina-like event have existed for decades, she believes a critical breakdown occurred when the levee broke.
She called the lack of immediate federal help "incomprehensible," the Washington Post reported.
What ultimately went wrong is now in the hands of investigators. On Sept. 6, 2005, Congress and President Bush separately announced they would investigate the planning and response to the disaster.
"Governments at all levels failed," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in her announcement that the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee would hold hearings. "It is difficult to understand the lack of preparedness and the ineffective initial response to a disaster that had been predicted for years, and for which specific, dire warnings had been given for days."