Saturday, June 30, 2007

How the US government ignored its own Gulf Coast hurricane plans

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released a new report, The Best Laid Plans: The Story of How the Government Ignored Its Own Gulf Coast Hurricane Plans, detailing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) plan to respond to a hurricane of Katrina’s magnitude and its subsequent failure to implement that plan.

On September 7, 2005, CREW sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), of which FEMA is a component, seeking records related to the federal government’s long-term planning for a hurricane on the Gulf Coast as well as its immediate preparations for and response to Hurricane Katrina. In January 2006, CREW sued to force DHS to comply with the FOIA. The Best Laid Plans is based on the 7,500 records DHS provided in response to CREW’s lawsuit.

Critically, CREW found that FEMA had created a “Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Plan” (SLCHP), which forecast a range of specific consequences, including:

* New Orleans would be flooded with 14-17 feet of water, the levee system inundated with at least 10 feet of water and the hurricane would move into Mississippi;

* One million people would evacuate, but flooding would trap at least 250-350,000; and

* Each hurricane victim would require a minimum of two Meals Ready to Eat, one gallon of water and eight pounds of ice per day.

The SLCHP included plans to:

* Evacuate residents and position resources pre-hurricane;

* Provide power, water and ice to hurricane victims; and

* Provide short-term shelter and longer-term temporary housing.

Nevertheless, despite the comprehensive SLCHP, post-Katrina FEMA documents demonstrate that the plan was never implemented. On August 28, 2005, the day before Katrina hit, FEMA Deputy Director Patrick Rhode sent an email to Deputy Chief of Staff Brooks Altshuler and Michael Heath, Special Assistant to FEMA Director Michael Brown, with the subject line, “copy of New Orleans cat plan” stating, “I never got one – I think Brown got my copy – did you get one?”

CREW also found that the catastrophe was impacted by:

* Significant funding cuts to federal flood control and the Army Corps of Engineers budget for hurricane protection for the Lake Pontchartrain region;

* Communications problems between key personnel that impeded coordination of overall relief efforts; and

* Lack of a mechanism for fielding and distributing donations and offers of assistance.

Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director said, “CREW’s report catalogues the government’s failures in responding to the most significant natural disaster ever faced by the United States.” Sloan continued, “The next national emergency -- whether another natural disaster or a terrorist attack -- undoubtedly will require both adequate preparation and competent execution; based on the findings in this report, what confidence can the American people have that our government will be ready to face those challenges?”

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