Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Hurricane Pam: Where it all started to go wrong. You may have seen mention of the "Hurricane Pam" exercise in press coverage of Louisiana's emergency preparedness, or lack thereof. I was at the Hurricane Pam exercise, and I think maybe I can clear a few things up. First, let's get one simple one out of the way: Ivor Van Heerden of the LSU Hurricane Center had nothing to do with the conception or execution of the Hurricane Pam exercise. In fact, the participation of the Center was limited to presenting the same tired computer animation they've been trotting out to all the networks, and arguing with the data and assumptions provided by Innovative Emergency Management, my former employers and the company that designed and facilitated the exercise, at the behest of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, and with the cooperation of FEMA. I don't know if Ivor is playing the media or if the media is simply enchanted by Ivor's hair, but he didn't do dick except piss people off. As with most IEM projects, the Hurricane Pam exercise was put together at the last minute, in a blind animal panic with no time for refinement, testing, or subtlety, but it still was a remarkable and bold idea. Hurricane Pam was a week-long simulation (not a tabletop exercise) with a difference: while response to the fictional Hurricane Pam, a slow-moving category three storm making steady progress up the Mississippi and landing just to the west of New Orleans, was the designated activity, the purpose of the exercise was to create a series of plans and recommendations which would be presented to the State of Louisiana and adopted as the official Hurricane Response Plan. Attendees included emergency managers from all across Louisiana, representatives from the EPA, the National Guard, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the DOTD, the Red Cross (who I remember as being marginalized and tolerated at best, with more than a little eye rolling from the "professionals"), the State Police, and many others. Also taking on important roles were representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA, who provided facilitators, computers, and a great deal of support. Here's how it worked: Daily information regarding the progress of the Hurricane was distributed in the form of briefings, presentations, and maps. Details of wind damage, flooding, displaced populations, communication outages, and much more, was available through handouts and detailed maps. Participants were divided into small groups with a single (albeit sometimes multi-faceted) issue to tackle: Search and Rescue, Power & Water & Ice, Dewatering, First Aid, Evacuations, etc. There was cross-communication between rooms, and persons with particular expertise would often be called in to provide detail. Notes were taken and a draft plan was created and presented to the Command Committee (or whatever it was called) at the end of each day, with a final plan presented at the end of the week. Now. There has been considerable talk in the press about this exercise being one of the instances of experts admitting that the NOLA levees could be breached. This is true, but only to this extent: there was uniform agreement that water would overflow the NOLA levees or migrate around gaps in the St. Charles Parish levees, but I heard no serious or sustained talk about levees breaking. In fact, one of the first priorities of the dewatering teams was to blow (they preferred "open") the levee drain gates in order to send the accumulated toxic soup down into the gulf. (the EPA was okay with this, according to their rep -- really, what choice would they have?) Reps from NOLA held that they could begin pumping water out of the city within two to five days and could complete pumping within a few weeks (remember, this was assuming that the levees were holding and that water could be drained out through them). This was also assuming major flooding, perhaps even worse than what we've seen with Katrina. There was a certain amount of contention, a few turf wars, some loud talk. None if it consequential, in the end, because of the single greatest emollient: FEMA. The Federal Emergency Management Agency promised the moon and the stars. They promised to have 1,000,000 bottles of water per day coming into affected areas within 48 hours. They promised massive prestaging with water, ice, medical supplies and generators. Anything that was needed, they would have either in place as the storm hit or ready to move in immediately after. All it would take is a phone call from local officials to the state, who would then call FEMA, and it would be done. There were contracts-in-place with major vendors across the country and prestaging areas were already determined (I'll have more to say about this later, but this is one reason FEMA has rejected large donation and turned back freelance shipments of water, medical supplies, food, etc: they have contracts in place to purchase those items, and accepting the same product from another source could be construed as breach of contract, and could lead to contract cancellation, thus removing a reliable source of product from the pool of available resources. I'm not saying I agree with this -- in fact, I don't, and think it's boneheaded -- but the reasoning is that if they accept five semis of water from the east Weewau, Wisconsin, Chamber of Commerce, the water supplier who is contractually bound to provide 100,000 gallons per day will be freed from that obligation. The organizers of the exercise -- particularly the former commender of LOHSEP, Col. Michael Brown (not that one) -- insisted that the plans contain no "fairy dust": no magical leaps of supply chains or providers: if you said you would need 500 semis for your part of the plan, you had to specify where the 500 semis were coming from. Everyone tried to keep the fairy dust to a minimum, and they did so, for the most part, despite having big plans: LSU, Southern, Southeastern and other campuses dismissed for the semester and turned into giant triage centers/tent cities; acres of temporary housing built on government-owned land; C-130 transport planes ferrying evacuees to relatives in other states, and so on. Bold plans, but doable, with cooperation. A comprehensive plan was beginning to emerge. Except that it didn't. A followup conference, to iron out difficulties in some of the individual plans and to formalize presentation of the final package, scheduled for either late '04 or early '05 -- I can't remember and can find no mention of the followup event on the web -- was cancelled at the last minute, due to lack of funding (which agency called the cancellation, I'm not sure, although the lack of funds would take it all back to FEMA, in the end). So: Louisiana did have a hurricane plan, but was devising a new one, to be based on recommendation from the people who would actually be doing the work. The need to evacuate people from impact areas, including those without transportation or the means to obtain it, was discussed, despite media assertions to the contrary. The possibility of levee overflow was discussed (levee breaching may have been discussed at some point, but I was in the dewatering room, and I never heard it mentioned. A rescue and evacuation plan, including sheltering, was reasonably firm. There were and are officials in Louisiana, including New Orleans Emergency Management, who know the limitations of current planning and who have been trying to come up with a better solution. The problem is FEMA, and by extension the Department of Homeland Security, which gobbled FEMA up in 2003. FEMA promised more than they could deliver. They cut off deeper, perhaps more meaningful discussion and planning by handing out empty promises. The plans that were made -- which were not given any sort of stamp of authority -- were never distributed or otherwise made available to those who most needed stable guidance; they vanished into the maw of FEMA and LOSHEP (probably when Col. Brown was removed from his command due to financial "irregularities" -- the project was tainted after that). Adoption of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) would have made most of the plans moot anyway -- FEMA's adherence to the untried NIMS is a primary reason for the chaos and ineptitude surrounding their relief efforts. More later.

19 Comments:

Blogger oyster said...

This is a tremendous post and I look forward to more. I think you have an invaluable perspective on this, Greg, and appreciate the time you are taking to share it.

Press on, sir!

(I must confess, though, that I don't know what "prestaging" means. I can sort of infer it, but could you define it for me?)

9/07/2005 06:17:00 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

I apologize for not reading all of the post before asking: When did you work for IEM? I was a technical editor there from 1998-2000. What department were you in?

9/09/2005 05:22:00 PM  
Anonymous exbee said...

This is how to prepare a emergency plan for cities like New Orleans.

1. Intentionally flood the city, that's right, I said flood the city, pour 1,000,000 gallons for water into the city. Tear down 5 levies.

2. Do the above thing around Midnight and do not warn the public so to get the suprise effect that is so crucially important to get the real ambiance.

3. Around 9:00 a.m. start the clean up, look for bodies and get aid from the local, state and federal government.

4. Couple of days later, do an after action report and see what can be done better next time.

9/09/2005 06:40:00 PM  
Blogger kendall said...

This was very helpful to me. I saw Dateline last night and based on their presentation I thought Ivor Van Heerden had a role in the Hurricane Pam exercise.

Thanks for the useful background material.

9/10/2005 01:29:00 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

You'd think that since Andrew Sullivan linked to this, there'd be more comments. Anyway, this post told me more than most of what I've heard on the news.

9/10/2005 03:27:00 PM  
Blogger jto said...

Thanks for the first-hand account. +1 Insightful.

9/11/2005 04:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Henriet Cousin' said...

I'm sorry but you have not proved your assertion that FEMA promised more than it could deliver. All evidence leads to the conclusion that FEMA did in fact deliver, or was ready to deliver, what it promised within 4 days!

9/11/2005 09:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi. Found your blog via Andrew Sullivan, and I'm glad you're sharing this info. I don't agree with "henriet" above me, but if you could provide any more info on FEMA's role, I'd appreciate it.

Thanks for posting this!
alice

9/11/2005 10:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's been one other assertion in the press coverage about Hurricane Pam, and that's that the team figured out that about a hundred thousand people wouldn't have any way to evacuate, but that after they concluded this, nobody took the time to make a plan to get them out. Know anything about this part of it? Is that more or less accurate, from what you know?

9/11/2005 11:22:00 PM  
Blogger Suspect Device said...

"...the team figured out that about a hundred thousand people wouldn't have any way to evacuate, but that after they concluded this, nobody took the time to make a plan to get them out. Know anything about this part of it? Is that more or less accurate, from what you know?"

Yeah, that's about right. It was assumed that a substantial percentage of that 100k (which was 100k spread around SE Lousiana, not just NOLA) would have to be taken out by search and rescue. The notion of doing something to evacuate those without transport was raised late in the game, but was left as an action item for the followup meetings.

9/12/2005 07:06:00 AM  
Blogger Suspect Device said...

"Hi. Found your blog via Andrew Sullivan, and I'm glad you're sharing this info. I don't agree with "henriet" above me, but if you could provide any more info on FEMA's role, I'd appreciate it."

Working on it -- even in Lafayette, things are still crazy. Thanks for reading.

9/12/2005 07:08:00 AM  
Blogger HotJavaJack said...

Hmmm. I sense fairy dust at work in your conclusion that the reason that the State didn't finish its plan is because it got lost at FEMA. It's quite a leap.

Well the dog ate my homework, too.

9/12/2005 01:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Working on it -- even in Lafayette, things are still crazy. Thanks for reading."

I'll read whenever you post it. Take your time, man, and take care of yourself and your family first. I hope you're doing ok.

alice

9/12/2005 02:23:00 PM  
Anonymous sb said...

Here's another former IEMer coming out. I worked there from 2001-2004. Ole Greg here was my boss part of that time. Greg--I emailed you today....can I give you a call?

sb

9/12/2005 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger Suspect Device said...

"I sense fairy dust at work in your conclusion that the reason that the State didn't finish its plan is because it got lost at FEMA. It's quite a leap."

That's not what I said at all. I said the state didn't convene the second Pam workshop, to flesh out the plan, becuase FEMA cancelled the funding, and that even the skeletal plans that were created are not available, because they're technically FEMA property and FEMA hasn't released them. It sucks and it's stupid, and State and nOLA officials have a lot of explaining to do, but the point, just to stamp it in, is that the beginnings of a large-scale, forward-thinking plan were wasted.

9/12/2005 08:24:00 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

A followup conference, to iron out difficulties in some of the individual plans and to formalize presentation of the final package, scheduled for either late '04 or early '05 -- I can't remember and can find no mention of the followup event on the web

Is this the December 2004 meeting described (in the past tense) in the Spring newsletter of the Louisiana Emergency Preparedness Association? (PDF here (via).)

Fascinating post, btw. I've quoted it on my blog, where I've written a series of Katrina posts (start here.)

9/13/2005 05:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

NIMS is not untested and not untried. NIMS is the same thing as Incident Command System and that has been around since the 70's and works like a charm when done right. The problem is that the Federal Government, and particularly FEMA chose to ignore and never learn how to make it happen. The fact that someone said that NIMS is untried speaks volumes to the fact that they don't know what they are talking about and are themselves not qualified to provide judgment. If IEM is stating that NIMS doesn't work then they need to get out of the emergency management business. I certainly won't hire them if that is there stance. I've been doing ICS for over 15 years and know that works. But what I continually run into is people who don't educate themselves and learn how to do it. They just talk big but when it comes to implementing it they don't have a clue. FEMA is clueless about NIMS. FEMA can't get out of the box and they continue to do business as if the old Federal Response Plan (FRP) was still applicable. There's a lot of good people in FEMA and many of them are working hard to solve problems and many things are getting solved. So those of you critizing from the sidelines may need to get your feet wet. I'm actually here, on site, and know what's going on.

10/08/2005 07:56:00 AM  
Anonymous g said...

All the info on this exercise mentions evacuation for people without transportation but gives no specifics. Neither does your blog. Please provide specific means of evacuation that were discussed.

2/15/2006 09:27:00 AM  
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