New Orleans' Previous Plans for Hurricanes

One of the questions raised this week is how well people anticipated what would happen if a major hurricane hit New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina flooded much of the city — and there is a severe lack of basic supplies and even shelter. For some answers about how the government prepared, one can look at the plan for Hurricane Pam. Robert Siegel talks with Mark Schleifstein, environment reporter at The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

One of the questions raised by events of this week is how well people anticipated what would happen if a major hurricane hit New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina flooded much of the city, and there is a severe lack of basic supplies and even shelter. For some answers about how the government prepared, one can look at the plan for Hurricane Pam. Mark Schleifstein is environment reporter for The New Orleans Times-Picayune. He reported on Hurricane Pam.

Mr. MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN (The Times-Picayune): Hurricane Pam was part of a tabletop exercise that a variety of federal, state and local agencies conducted earlier this year that tried to take a first in-depth look at how to deal with a catastrophic hurricane hitting New Orleans.

SIEGEL: Now when you say a tabletop exercise, you mean various agency representatives and heads sat around and sort of gamed what would happen if this actually were to take place.

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: It actually was a gathering of a couple of hundred individuals from every level looking at how to put together new school systems; how to deal with where students would go when they were flooded out and all of a sudden showed up on somebody else's back door; how they would deal with getting water out of the city in great detail, which the Corps of Engineers already had a pretty good head start on; how to deal with the debris that would be left with a hurricane; how to go out and get contractors very quickly to be hired to come in and remove the material; how to deal with setting up all sorts of emergency medical facilities in the region to be able to get people out and take care of them on a short-term and then on a long-term basis; how to deal with the dead, how to set up mortuary areas around the city. I mean, it went into every single detail that you could possibly think of.

However, where they were in doing this was basically asking what information they needed in order to put together a comprehensive plan. And they were just beginning to deal with that when this storm hit.

SIEGEL: President Bush said something this morning on ABC Television. He said, `I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.' I'm not entirely sure what time frame he was referring to there. But when the hypothetical Hurricane Pam hit New Orleans, did the levees break?

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: Yes, they did. Oh, oh, well, let me rephrase that. For the--Hurricane Pam, it didn't matter if the levees break because it assumed a storm surge higher than the levees, so that whether the levees broke or not would be--wouldn't mean anything. More water would be coming into the city than the levees could hold back.

SIEGEL: In the hypothetical Hurricane Pam, were the people of New Orleans told to leave, and did all of them leave?

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: The assumption always has been that a significant chunk of the population just could not get out of New Orleans. The reality always has been--and everybody has known it--that there are--according to the last census, there were 112,000 households in New Orleans proper without transportation. And those people--you know, that's what you assume. You've got to assume that those people are going to have to find some other way out. Over the last two years the American Red Cross and the state Office of Emergency Preparedness have been attempting to deal with that by trying to figure out some way of getting the faith-based community to get their members to pair up, do buddy systems sort of a thing. But that, again, was something that was just getting off the ground.

SIEGEL: If I understand you right, the assumption, even in this hypothetical Hurricane Pam, was that, as has been the case, perhaps 20 percent of the population of the city would remain for a catastrophic hurricane.

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: That's always been the assumption. And, indeed, the recovery plan is based on that. It's based on the assumption that there will be several hundred thousand people remaining in the city that will have to be dealt with in all these different ways.

SIEGEL: And the plan assumed that they could be provided with emergency shelter and relief?

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: The plan was aimed at attempting to provide them with relief after the fact because it was a recovery plan. The question of refuge of last resort, which is what they call efforts to provide people a place to go, is, unfortunately, something that hasn't been looked at very well in the community, either at the local and state or the national level. That has been--as we've seen with this storm, it's a problem that people just have failed to face.

SIEGEL: Mark, thanks for talking with us once again.

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: Well, thank you.

SIEGEL: Mark Schleifstein, who is environment reporter for The Times-Picayune. And for the Web site where you can read their reporting nowadays, NOLA.com.

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