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Context of '11:00 am August 27, 2005: NHC Director briefs FEMA on Katrina, Warns that Storm Surge May Overwhelm New Orleans Levees'

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Consistent with its strategy to outsource disaster management functions (see Summer 2004), FEMA solicits bids for a contract to develop a hurricane disaster management plan for Southeastern Louisiana. FEMA’s “Scope of Work” for the contract demonstrates that it is acutely aware of the region’s vulnerability to hurricanes, and of the inadequacy of current plans to manage a major hurricane effectively. According to the document, FEMA and the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness “believe that the gravity of the situation calls for an extraordinary level of advance planning to improve government readiness to respond effectively to such an event.” FEMA describes the catastrophe that will result when a hurricane strikes Southeastern Louisiana. For example, FEMA writes that “the emergency management community has long feared the occurrence of a catastrophic disaster” that would cause “unprecedented levels of damage, casualties, dislocation, and disruption that would have nationwide consequences and jeopardize national security.” It cites “various hurricane studies” predicting that “a slow-moving Category 3 or almost any Category 4 or 5 hurricane approaching Southeast Louisiana from the south could severely damage the heavily populated southeast portion of the state creating a catastrophe with which the State would not be able to cope without massive help from neighboring states and the Federal Government.” FEMA also expressly recognizes that “existing plans, policies, procedures and resources” are inadequate to effectively manage such a “mega-disaster.” The work specified in the contract, awarded to Innovative Emergency Management (IEM) in early June (see June 3, 2004), is to be performed in three stages. During Stage I, scheduled for completion between May 19 and September 30, 2004, IEM will conduct a simulation exercise featuring a “catastrophic hurricane striking southeastern Louisiana” for local, state, and FEMA emergency officials. (FEMA will pay IEM $518,284 for this stage (see July 19-23, 2004)) IEM completes this stage when it conducts the “Hurricane Pam” exercise in July 2004 (see July 19-23, 2004). During Stage 2, IEM will develop a “full catastrophic hurricane disaster plan.” FEMA allocates $199,969 for this stage, which is to be completed between September 23, 2004 and September 30, 2005 (see September 23, 2004). The status of Stage 2 is currently unclear. [Department of Homeland Security, 2004 pdf file; Department of Homeland Security, 2004 pdf file; US Congress, 9/9/2005] IEM apparently provides FEMA with a draft document titled “Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Functional Plan,” in August 2004. [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 8/6/2004 pdf file] The Times-Picayune will identify a later 109-page draft, dated September 20, 2004 [Times-Picayune, 9/9/2005] [Times-Picayune, 9/9/2005] , and the Chicago Tribune will report that as Hurricane Katrina bears down on Louisiana during the evening of August 28, 2005, emergency officials are working from a functional plan, based on the 2004 Hurricane Pam exercise, that is only a few months old. The third stage relates to earthquake planning for the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ) in the Central United States. [US Congress, 9/9/2005; Chicago Tribune, 9/11/2005] The Scope of Work specifies that the contractor must plan for the following conditions:
bullet “Over one million people would evacuate from New Orleans. Evacuees would crowd shelters throughout Louisiana and adjacent states.” [Department of Homeland Security, 2004 pdf file]
bullet “Hurricane surge would block highways and trap 300,000 to 350,000 persons in flooded areas. Storm surge of over 18 feet would overflow flood-protection levees on the Lake Pontchartrain side of New Orleans. Storm surge combined with heavy rain could leave much of New Orleans under 14 to 17 feet of water. More than 200 square miles of urban areas would be flooded.” [Department of Homeland Security, 2004 pdf file]
bullet “It could take weeks to ‘de-water’ (drain) New Orleans: Inundated pumping stations and damaged pump motors would be inoperable. Flood-protection levees would prevent drainage of floodwater. Breaching the levees would be a complicated and politically sensitive problem: The Corps of Engineers may have to use barges or helicopters to haul earthmoving equipment to open several hundred feet of levee.” [Department of Homeland Security, 2004 pdf file]
bullet “Rescue operations would be difficult because much of the area would be reachable only by helicopters and boats.” [Department of Homeland Security, 2004 pdf file]
bullet “Hospitals would be overcrowded with special-needs patients. Backup generators would run out of fuel or fail before patients could be moved elsewhere.” [Department of Homeland Security, 2004 pdf file]
bullet “The New Orleans area would be without electric power, food, potable water, medicine, or transportation for an extended time period.” [Department of Homeland Security, 2004 pdf file]
bullet “Damaged chemical plants and industries could spill hazardous materials.” [Department of Homeland Security, 2004 pdf file]
bullet “Standing water and disease could threaten public health.” [Department of Homeland Security, 2004 pdf file]
bullet “There would be severe economic repercussions for the state and region.” [Department of Homeland Security, 2004 pdf file]
bullet “Outside responders and resources, including the Federal response personnel and materials, would have difficulty entering and working in the affected area.” [Department of Homeland Security, 2004 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Federal Emergency Management Agency

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Funding is cut for a FEMA disaster exercise meant to prepare government agencies for a major hurricane in New Orleans. The exercise, a follow-up to the Hurricane “Pam” exercise that was conducted the prior year (see July 19-23, 2004), was to develop a plan to fix such unresolved problems as evacuating sick and injured people from the Superdome and housing tens of thousands of displaced residents. [Knight Ridder, 9/1/2005] “Money was not available to do the follow-up,” Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will later say in an interview with the Associated Press. [Associated Press, 9/9/2005] After the disastrous Hurricane Katrina, Eric Tolbert, FEMA’s former disaster response chief, will tell Knight Ridder Newspapers: “A lot of good was done, but it just wasn’t finished. 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.” [Knight Ridder, 9/1/2005]

Entity Tags: Federal Emergency Management Agency, Eric Tolbert, Michael D. Brown

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Walter Maestri, Director of the Emergency Management Center in Jefferson Parish, receives a call from Max Mayfield, Director of the National Hurricane Center. As Maestri later recalls, “Max said to me, ‘Walter, I just want to alert you that a couple of the models are heading this thing right to New Orleans, and I think this thing is going to seriously intensify. You need to be ready.’ At that time, the track was going up the west coast of Florida, so I said to Max, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And he said, ‘No, Walt, this is real.’” Maestri immediately convenes his staff to begin preparations. According to Maestri, government officials—at all levels—have prepared for this event for years. During conferences, officials repeatedly have repeatedly discussed the fact that a hurricane could flood all of New Orleans and kill up to 40,000 people. Manuals, spanning hundreds of pages, set forth who (local, state, and federal) will do what and when, when the “monster storm hits.” These officials have repeatedly run hurricane exercises to practice execution of the plans. Mayfield will also warn Louisiana and FEMA officials. He briefs FEMA headquarters in a video teleconference, so that he can see the decision-makers during the call. [National Public Radio, 9/9/2005]

Entity Tags: Walter Maestri, Max Mayfield, Federal Emergency Management Agency

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

During FEMA’s daily video conference, Max Mayfield, National Hurricane Center Director, warns FEMA officials that Hurricane Katrina could make landfall near New Orleans as a Category 4 hurricane: “This one is different… It’s strong, but it’s also much, much larger.” Mayfield also warns FEMA that the anticipated storm surge could overwhelm the levees. Mayfield will later recall that he sees many “newcomers to the disaster world” around the table during this conference. However, he knows that many professionals listening in from the Gulf states have been through his hurricane prep course and they know that this is no drill: “The emergency guys, they know what a Cat 4 is,” Mayfield states. Jack Colley, State Coordinator for Texas’ Division of Emergency Management similarly recalls that, “Clearly on Saturday, we knew it was going to be the Big One.… We were very convinced this was going to be a very catastrophic event.” [Washington Post, 9/11/2005]

Entity Tags: National Hurricane Center, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Max Mayfield, Hurricane Katrina

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Max Mayfield, Director of the National Hurricane Center, warns the Times-Picayune that Hurricane Katrina poses an imminent danger to New Orleans: “The guidance we get and common sense and experience suggests this storm is not done strengthening.… This is really scary. This is not a test, as your governor said earlier today. This is the real thing.” Katrina “is a very, very dangerous hurricane, and capable of causing a lot of damage and loss of life if we’re not careful.” “This thing is like Hurricane Opal,” Mayfield says, referring to the 1995 Category 3 hurricane that hit the Florida panhandle. “We’re seeing 12-foot seas along the Louisiana coast already.” [Times-Picayune Blog, 8/27/2005]

Entity Tags: Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Opal, Max Mayfield

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Around 7 pm this evening, LSU Hurricane Center scientists share their latest prediction models with emergency officials at the Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge. On the giant screen looming over the officials, scientists post the sum of all fears: New Orleans will go under. Everyone knows what that means: a major water rescue of untold thousands. [Time, 9/4/2005] The model predicts that Katrina’s storm surge may weaken and overtop New Orleans’ levees, causing massive flooding of Plaquemines Parish, New Orleans’ 9th Ward, Michoud area, and Mid-City, as well as large parts of Slidell. [Schleifstein, 8/27/2005; Daily Advertiser, 8/27/2005] The Times-Picayune will publish the projected storm surge map the next morning. [Times-Picayune, 8/28/2005 pdf file] Reportedly, the Center also e-mails their modeling results to state and federal agencies, including the National Hurricane Center. [MSNBC, 9/9/2005]

Entity Tags: LSU Hurricane Center, National Emergency Operations Center, National Hurricane Center

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Max Mayfield, Director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC) appears on CNN to warn that Hurricane Katrina is a very dangerous storm: “Well, it’s very serious. And it can not only cause a lot of damage, but large loss of life if people don’t heed the advice of those local officials. This could be stronger than Hurricane Betsy in 1965. And I know there’s been a lot of focus on New Orleans, as there should be, but we don’t want to forget about Mississippi and Alabama. They’re going to have a tremendous storm surge, not only near, but well out to the east to where the center of this hurricane makes landfall.” Mayfield states that “I certainly would [evacuate] if I lived in a place that did not have some high terrain. And that’s much of southeast Louisiana. This has always been our greatest, you know, concern anywhere on the Gulf of Mexico. And I think when we start talking about storm surge values, up as high as Camille, you know, that will get people’s attention. We’re going to very likely put up the hurricane warning later tonight.” [CNN, 8/27/2005]

Entity Tags: Hurricane Katrina, Max Mayfield, Hurricane Betsy

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Inside FEMA’s National Emergency Operations Center this morning, “None of the things that [are] supposed to be happening at the national level are happening. Nobody [is] mobilizing extra National Guard troops or organizing buses to help evacuate New Orleans,” Leo Bosner, FEMA Emergency Management Specialist, will later claim. (Bosner is president of the union representing FEMA staff.) According to Bosner, at one point today, he looks around and counts only 12 people in the office: “We [are] sitting around and somebody [says], you know, ‘Where are the buses? Where are the resources to get these people out of here?’ And I think we all just felt pretty despondent, let down, kind of numb about the whole thing.” [National Public Radio, 9/16/2005] FEMA Director Michael Brown, however, will paint a very different picture of FEMA’s preparation to President Bush (see (10:00-11:00 am) August 28, 2005), and to the public (see (8:05 am) August 28, 2005) later today.
Note - Bosner will be inconsistent regarding exactly when this conversation about buses takes place. He reportedly tells the New York Times that it occurs on Friday. [New York Times, 9/11/2005] However, given that by his own reports, he and other staff members became focused on the threat to Louisiana on Friday night and Saturday morning [National Public Radio, 9/16/2005] , it appears more likely that this conversation takes place on Sunday morning.

Entity Tags: Leo Bosner, Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Emergency Operations Center

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

FEMA Director Michael Brown appears on CNN this morning. Brown first assures viewers that FEMA has been preparing to respond to a catastrophic hurricane hitting New Orleans for two years, before turning to the issue of evacuation: “I’m more concerned right now, not about our readiness, but about the individual people in Louisiana. I understand that there are, you know, voluntary evacuations right now. I’ll tell you this personally. If I lived in New Orleans, I’d be getting out of there. I think it’s time to leave now.” Brown warns that the hurricane likely will bring massive flooding: “[T]he storm surge in a category five, can easily exceed 20 feet. You have areas that are already below sea level. We have photographs that show, graphically show what that means. If you go into the French quarter, we’re talking about a storm surge that is on the tops of those buildings. It’s very, very devastating. So people need to take the storm seriously. Let me put it this way. I’ve got rescue teams, urban search and rescue teams, swift water teams that are moving in there right now to be prepared. You don’t want them to have to come and rescue you. So you need to get out of the way of the storm now.” If the “devastation is widespread as we anticipate it to be,” people may be cut off from rescuers for up to 48 hours. Brown promises that FEMA is ready: “We’re going to respond and we’re going to do exactly what we did in Florida and Alabama and the other places. We’re going to do whatever it takes to help victims.” [CNN, 8/28/2005]

Entity Tags: Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael D. Brown

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Max Mayfield, Director of the National Hurricane Center hosts a teleconference with FEMA officials, including FEMA Director Michael Brown and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. [Times-Picayune, 9/4/2005; Los Angeles Times, 9/5/2005] President Bush receives a briefing via video conference from his ranch in Crawford Texas. [US President, 9/5/2005] Brown assures Bush during this briefing that FEMA is ready for the storm, according to ABC News. [ABC News, 9/8/2005] Bush tells Brown that he is very impressed with everything FEMA is doing, according to Brown [CBS News, 8/29/2005]
Note - Whether President Bush participates in this particular briefing is not clear from current reports. However, it is undisputed that Bush receives a briefing from Mayfield via videoconference at some point this morning.

Entity Tags: Michael D. Brown, Michael Chertoff, George W. Bush, Max Mayfield, Federal Emergency Management Agency

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) Advisory leads by warning, “Potentially catastrophic Hurricane Katrina headed for the Northern Gulf Coast.” Conditions are already deteriorating along portions of the central and northeastern Gulf Coast, and they will continue to deteriorate throughout the evening. Katrina, still a Category 5 hurricane, is likely to make landfall with Category 4 or 5 intensity. The NHC reiterates that storm surge flooding will be 18-22 feet above normal, with increased surge to 28 feet in some areas, and warns that “some levees in the greater New Orleans area could be overtopped.” Katrina’s minimum central pressure is now the fourth lowest on record in the Atlantic. Other aspects of the NHC Advisory include:
bullet Location: 150 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River
bullet Direction and Speed: Northwest at near 13 mph
bullet Maximum Sustained Winds: 175 mph with higher gusts
bullet Estimated Central Pressure: 902 mb
bullet Size: Hurricane winds extend 105 miles from the center; tropical storm force winds extend outward for 230 miles
bullet Probability that in the next 69 hours, Katrina’s eye will pass within 75 miles of:
bullet Panama City, FL: 5 percent
bullet Gulfport, MS: 38 percent
bullet New Orleans, LA: 47 percent [National Hurricane Center, 8/28/2005; National Hurricane Center, 8/28/2005; National Hurricane Center, 8/28/2005]

Entity Tags: Hurricane Katrina, National Hurricane Center

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina will make landfall in Louisiana in only 48 hours . At Governor Blanco’s request (see Early Morning August 27, 2005), President Bush has declared a state of emergency in Louisiana (see (Midday) August 27, 2005). Low-lying parishes have issued mandatory or recommended evacuations, and New Orleans has issued something between a voluntary and a recommended evacuation (see Morning, August 27, 2005; Evening August 27, 2005). FEMA apparently has sent 10-20 staff members to Louisiana by this time (see 11:00 am August 27, 2005). FEMA publishes a graphic projecting the path of Hurricane Katrina this hour, based on the National Hurricane Center Advisory 21 (see 4:00 am August 28, 2005). FEMA’s graphic indicates that Katrina will pass through New Orleans approximately 32 hours from now, at 2:00 pm tomorrow. [Agency, 8/28/2005 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

FEMA issues a release urging “all fire and emergency services departments not to respond to counties and states affected by Hurricane Katrina without being requested and lawfully dispatched by state and local authorities under mutual aid agreements and the Emergency Management Assistance Compact.” According to FEMA Director Michael Brown, “The response to Hurricane Katrina must be well coordinated between federal, state and local officials to most effectively protect life and property. We appreciate the willingness and generosity of our Nation’s first responders to deploy during disasters. But such efforts must be coordinated so that fire-rescue efforts are the most effective possible.” The US Fire Administration, part of FEMA, asks that fire and emergency services organizations remain in contact with their local and state emergency management agency officials for updates on requirements in the affected areas. According to R. David Paulison, US Fire Administrator, “It is critical that fire and emergency departments across the country remain in their jurisdictions until such time as the affected states request assistance.… State and local mutual aid agreements are in place as is the Emergency Management Assistance Compact and those mechanisms will be used to request and task resources needed in the affected areas.” The National Incident Management System is being used during the response to Hurricane Katrina and that self-dispatching volunteer assistance could significantly complicate the response and recovery effort. [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 8/29/2005]

Entity Tags: Emergency Management Assistance Compact, US Fire Administration, R. David Paulison, Michael D. Brown, Hurricane Katrina, Federal Emergency Management Agency

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

FEMA Director Michael Brown appears on ABC’s Nightline. When Ted Koppel asks Brown about the massive flooding in New Orleans and the need to drain the water from the city, Brown responds as follows: “[A] few years ago, I decided that FEMA really needed to do some catastrophic disaster planning. And so, the President gave us the money to do that and the first place we did a study was in New Orleans. And as you know, you’ve probably heard everyone talk about the bowl. What happened is, you know, Max Mayfield at the National Hurricane Center was right. We had a huge storm surge that came across those levees. I’m not sure we had breeches but we certainly had some areas where there’s some leaks and flooding continuing to occur. That water all gets in. We now have to rely upon the pumps. We need generators to do that pumping because the power was out. And some of those pumps may or may not fail. So, it’s going to be a long, tedious process to now get that water back out so we can then even start rebuilding homes, let alone let people back into them.” Asked to compare the damage in New Orleans to elsewhere in the region, and even though he has just acknowledged the widespread flooding in the city, Brown responds as follows: “[W]hat happened—believe it or not, I think New Orleans is the one that got off easy because Katrina moved to the east 30 or 45 miles. And that prevented what we would have seen had it hit the bull’s eye. And that is widespread flooding, breeches of all of the levees. And you would have seen downtown inundated also.” [ABC, 8/29/2005]

Entity Tags: Michael D. Brown, Max Mayfield, Ted Koppel, Federal Emergency Management Agency

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

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