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On Hurricane Pam: The Perfect Storm

(Notes from Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security)

Hurricane Pam was a simulated computer storm surge, modelled by consulting company Innovative Emergency Management (where“employees often wear t-shirts and jeans or shorts with tennis shoes or sandals” according to the website) in the spring of 2004 for (a modest, apparently) $800,000, as a ‘training exercise designed to get local and federal disaster responders thinking about how they might deal with the after-effects of a catastrophic storm that hit New Orleans”.


The Hurricane Pam scenario was a plan ‘with a twist’…."the exercise made the readers – the local emergency responders – the authors as well”. It was meant to break from the tradition of "cookie-cutter wargames scripted by a Washington contractor” and years of “dense, jargon-filled” federal hurricane plans that sat, unread, on shelves of local disaster offices.

“Pam took a bottom-up approach, inviting the participants to take a crack at writing their own game plan for coping with ‘the Big One”. Low-tech was the guiding principle and it also departed from the “the traditional mindset of disaster planners that the best way to practice is to present the absolute worst-case scenario” - Hurricane Pam was a mere Category 3 storm. Most important was that the plan would be absorbed by the very people who needed it most. “A lot of times people don’t read the plan….the intent of this planning exercise was to engage” Madhu Beriwal said.

There were fifteen sections to the plan, covering everything from rescue efforts and medical care to clearing the city’s streets of water and debris and handling hazardous waste spills. For each section there was to be a workshop where disaster officials would present the mock hurricane to first responders as a ‘skeleton’ and stage a series of conversations. Locals would consult the scenario, draft a list of supplies and manpower from the resources they possessed at that moment and then fire questions at each other, recorded by IEM stenographers. “The answers would come through discussion and argument with locals and state responders, not from Washington officials 1100 miles away”. The first workshop, on search-and-rescue, brought together 270 people including federal agency representatives, the military, state troopers, school superintendents and volunteer firefighters.

“Participants figured they would need 308 boats, 800 body bags, 400 flashlights, 150 paddles and 12 spare bilge plugs for small craft….”I was like, whoa fellas, twelve boat plugs?” We’re getting down in the weeds here” said Jesse St Amant, of Plaquemines Parish. But getting down in the weeds was precisely the point. a failure of FEMA’s previous disaster plans was that they didn’t have enough details, precisely because they were cooked up by people in Washington who have no clue as to what a boat plug is."

The Hurricane Pam plan is full of FEMA promises: bedding for 100 000, mobile communication centers, video uplinks for teleconferences. But "when it was actually put to the test, it would have trouble supplying even flashlights, let alone the staggering amount of water and ice specified by the Army Corps of Engineer". In addition only three of the fifteen workshops took place. FEMA cancelled most of the followup sessions scheduled for the first half of 2005, claiming it was unable cover travel expenses its own employees ( it was later revealed that the shortfall amounted to less than $15000). On the other hand in subsequent disasters in Louisiana locals have excelled in the areas that were covered during the Pam workshops, for example evacuations. 90% of the city evacuated during Katrina, while in the past the average has rarely exceeded 60%.

But even Pam failed to forecast “the ultimate doomsday scenario – the utter collapse of New Orleans’ flood control system.”
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