02 September 2005

"Hurricane Pam..."

More evidence of gross incompetence. Not only has he started a tragic war he can't win, but now Bu$h has managed to lose an entire American community on his watch. However, I'm quite sure he'll find some way to blame Al Queda affilliated "evildoers" for the storm...


Disaster Proves Warnings True
Cox News Service
Friday, September 02, 2005

ATLANTA — 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?"

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.

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.

Alan Judd writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: ajudd@ajc.com


Blogger ryan said...

Bush Bungles It Again: Federal Government Wasn't Ready for Katrina, Disaster Experts Say

Posted on Thursday, September 01 @ 10:16:35 EDT

By Seth Borenstein, Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - The federal government so far has bungled the job of quickly helping the multitudes of hungry, thirsty and desperate victims of Hurricane Katrina, former top federal, state and local disaster chiefs said Wednesday.

The experts, including a former Bush administration disaster response manager, told Knight Ridder that the government wasn't prepared, scrimped on storm spending and shifted its attention from dealing with natural disasters to fighting the global war on terrorism.

The disaster preparedness agency at the center of the relief effort is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was enveloped by the new Department of Homeland Security with a new mission aimed at responding to the attacks of al-Qaida.

"What you're seeing is revealing weaknesses in the state, local and federal levels," said Eric Tolbert, who until February was FEMA's disaster response chief. "All three levels have been weakened. They've been weakened by diversion into terrorism."

In interviews on Wednesday, several men and women who've led relief efforts for dozens of killer hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes over the years chastised current disaster leaders for forgetting the simple Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared.

Bush administration officials said they're proud of their efforts. Their first efforts emphasized rooftop rescues over providing food and water for already safe victims.

"We are extremely pleased with the response of every element of the federal government (and) all of our federal partners have made to this terrible tragedy," Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said during a news conference Wednesday in Washington.

The agency has more than 1,700 truckloads of water, meals, tents, generators and other supplies ready to go in, Chertoff said. Federal health officials have started setting up at least 40 medical shelters. The Coast Guard reports rescuing more than 1,200 people.

But residents, especially in Biloxi, Miss., said they aren't seeing the promised help, and Knight Ridder reporters along the Gulf Coast said they saw little visible federal relief efforts, other than search-and-rescue teams. Some help started arriving Wednesday by the truckloads, but not everywhere.

"We're not getting any help yet," said Biloxi Fire Department Battalion Chief Joe Boney. "We need water. We need ice. I've been told it's coming, but we've got people in shelters who haven't had a drink since the storm."

The slow response to Katrina and poor federal leadership is a replay of 1992's mishandling of Hurricane Andrew, said former FEMA chief of staff Jane Bullock, a 22-year veteran of the agency.

Bullock blamed inexperienced federal leadership. She noted that Chertoff and FEMA Director Michael Brown had no disaster experience before they were appointed to their jobs.

The slowness is all too familiar to Kate Hale. As Miami's disaster chief during Hurricane Andrew, Hale asked: "Where the hell's the cavalry?"

"I'm looking at people who are begging for ice and water and (a) presence," Hale said Wednesday. "I'm seeing the same sort of thing that horrified us after Hurricane Andrew. ... I realize they've got a huge job. Nobody understands better than I do what they're trying to respond to, but ..."

Budget cuts haven't made disaster preparedness any easier.

Last year, FEMA spent $250,000 to conduct an eight-day hurricane drill for a mock killer storm hitting New Orleans. Some 250 emergency officials attended. Many of the scenarios now playing out, including a helicopter evacuation of the Superdome, were discussed in that drill for a fictional storm named Pam.

This year, the group was to design a plan to fix such unresolved problems as evacuating sick and injured people from the Superdome and housing tens of thousands of stranded citizens.

Funding for that planning was cut, said Tolbert, the former FEMA disaster response director.

"A lot of good was done, but it just wasn't finished," said Tolbert, who was the disaster chief for the state of North Carolina. "I don't know if it would have saved more lives. It would have made the response faster. You might say it would have saved lives."

FEMA wasn't alone in cutting hurricane spending in New Orleans and the surrounding area.

Federal flood control spending for southeastern Louisiana has been chopped from $69 million in 2001 to $36.5 million in 2005, according to budget documents. Federal hurricane protection for the Lake Pontchartrain vicinity in the Army Corps of Engineers' budget dropped from $14.25 million in 2002 to $5.7 million this year. Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu requested $27 million this year.

Both the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper and a local business magazine reported that the effects of the budget cuts at the Army Corps of Engineers were severe.

In 2004, the Corps essentially stopped major work on the now-breached levee system that had protected New Orleans from flooding. It was the first such stoppage in 37 years, the Times-Picayune reported.

"It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay," Jefferson Parish emergency management chief Walter Maestri told the newspaper. "Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."

The Army Corps' New Orleans office, facing a $71 million cut, also eliminated funds to pay for a study on how to protect the Crescent City from a Category 5 storm, New Orleans City Business reported in June.

Being prepared for a disaster is basic emergency management, disaster experts say.

For example, in the 1990s, in planning for a New Orleans nightmare scenario, the federal government figured it would pre-deploy nearby ships with pumps to remove water from the below-sea-level city and have hospital ships nearby, said James Lee Witt, who was FEMA director under President Clinton.

Federal officials said a hospital ship would leave from Baltimore on Friday.

"These things need to be planned and prepared for; it just doesn't look like it was," said Witt, a former Arkansas disaster chief who won bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill during his tenure.

FEMA said some of its response teams were prepared.

The agency had 18 search-and-rescue teams and 39 disaster medical teams positioned outside storm areas and moved them in when the hurricane died down.

Nonetheless, victims of this week's hurricane should have gotten more, said John Copenhaver, a former southeastern regional FEMA director.

"I would have difficulty explaining why there has not been a visible presence of ice, water, tarps - the kind of stuff that typically get delivered to hurricane areas," Copenhaver said.

A FEMA spokesman, James McIntyre, blamed the devastation in the region for slowing down relief efforts.

Roads were washed out and relief trucks were stopped by state police trying to keep people out of hazardous areas, he said.

That explanation didn't satisfy Joe Myers, Florida's former emergency management chief.

"I would think that yesterday they could have flown in," said Myers. "Everyone was flying in. Put it this way, FOX and CNN are there. If they can get there ..."

FEMA moved quickly with its search-and-rescue teams, which took precedence over delivering water and ice, McIntyre said.

"We're trying to save lives," McIntyre said. "The rescue teams are FEMA people. The medical assistance are FEMA people. Right now, getting people off roofs and keeping people from drowning are a priority."

Further complicating the relief effort in Louisiana is scandal within the state agency. Recently, three top officials of Louisiana's emergency management office were indicted in an investigation into the misuse of hurricane funds from last year's Ivan.

None of this matters to residents of the Gulf Coast.

"We're lost," said Steve Loper of Pascagoula, Miss. "We have no direction, no leadership. People are in bad trouble."

Alison Young, Ron Hutcheson and Tish Wells of the Knight Ridder Newspapers Washington Bureau, Pete Carey of the San Jose Mercury News and Scott Dodd of the Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.

Reprinted from Knight-Ridder Newspapers:

1:37 pm  
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