“I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.”
President Bush, ABC’s “Good Morning America” Thursday September 1, 2005

On Saturday September 3, 2005, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called the disaster “breathtaking in its surprise. … That ‘perfect storm’ of a combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody’s foresight… ”

Hurricane Pam brought sustained winds of 120 mph, up to 20 inches of rain in parts of southeast Louisiana and storm surge that topped levees in the New Orleans area. More than one million residents evacuated and Hurricane Pam destroyed 500,000-600,000 buildings.

In July 2004 Emergency officials from 50 parish, state, federal and volunteer organizations faced this scenario during a five-day exercise held at the State Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge.

The exercise used realistic weather and damage information developed by the National Weather Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the LSU Hurricane Center and other state and federal agencies to help officials develop joint response plans for a catastrophic hurricane in Louisiana.

Volunteer organizations joined emergency officials from Federal, State and local jurisdictions in exercise Hurricane Pam. The exercise consisted of a Category 3 Hurricane with sustained winds of 120 mph, up to 20 inches of rain, and the evacuation of more than 1 million people from 13 Parishes in Louisiana.

During the eight-day tabletop exercise, over 250 emergency preparedness officials from more than 50 federal, state and local agencies and volunteer organizations used this catastrophic scenario to develop a recovery plan for the 13 parishes in the New Orleans area.

The Hurricane Pam scenario focused on 13 parishes in southeast Louisiana-Ascension, Assumption, Jefferson, Lafourche, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. John, St. Tammany Tangipahoa, Terrebonne. Representatives from outside the primary parishes participated since hurricane evacuation and sheltering involve communities throughout the state and into Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas.

In advance of such a storm, officials expected evacuation to be only half successful. According to the Pam scenario, only a third of the population would leave New Orleans before the storm hit. This was a recognition of the city’s poor population, with upwards of 100,000 living in households in which no one owns a car.

Following the exercise, FEMA spokesman David Passey “hesitated” before answering a reporter’s question about how many people could die in such a storm. “We would see casualties not seen in the United States in the last century.” In 2002, John Clizbe, national vice president for disaster services with the American Red Cross, stated that between 25,000 and 100,000 people would die. This death toll dwarfs FEMA estimates of the next two deadliest disasters: 14,000 killed in a major earthquake along the New Madrid, MO, fault, and 4,500 killed in a catastrophic earthquake hitting San Francisco.

Soon after taking office, FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh directed the agency to evaluate potential catastrophic disasters – events that are low probability yet have high consequences. … . “Catastrophic disasters are best defined in that they totally outstrip local and state resources, which is why the federal government needs to play a role,” Allbaugh said. “There are a half-dozen or so contingencies around the nation that cause me great concern, and one of them is right there (in New Orleans).”

Nonetheless, the Times-Picayune reported that officials were upbeat after completing the hurricane exercise. FEMA Region VI Director, Ron Castleman, and Louisiana’s Emergency Preparedness Department Deputy Director, Col. Michael Brown were quoted as seeing good progress in preparedness. The exercise pointed out areas where work remained to be done and gave the participants the opportunity to evaluate their State capabilities.

“We made great progress this week in our preparedness efforts,” said Ron Castleman, FEMA Regional Director. “Disaster response teams developed action plans in critical areas such as search and rescue, medical care, sheltering, temporary housing, school restoration and debris management. These plans are essential for quick response to a hurricane but will also help in other emergencies.”

“Hurricane planning in Louisiana will continue,” said Colonel Michael L. Brown, Deputy Director for Emergency Preparedness, Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “Over the next 60 days, we will polish the action plans developed during the Hurricane Pam exercise. We have also determined where to focus our efforts in the future.”

A partial summary of action plans follows:


  • The debris team estimates that a storm like Hurricane Pam would result in 30 million cubic yards of debris and 237,000 cubic yards of household hazardous waste
  • The team identified existing landfills that have available storage space and locations of hazardous waste disposal sites. The debris plan also outlines priorities for debris removal.


  • The interagency shelter group identified the need for about 1,000 shelters for a catastrophic disaster. The shelter team identified 784 shelters and developed plans for locating the remaining shelters. [The Red Cross has stopped providing shelters in New Orleans for hurricanes rated above Category 2, saying they are too dangerous for people to remain in the city. During Katrina, more than 20,000 people went to the city’s shelter of last resort, the Louisiana Superdome. Later, the nearby New Orleans Arena provided additional shelter.] ]
  • In a storm like Hurricane Pam, shelters will likely remain open for 100 days. The group identified the resources necessary to support 1000 shelters for 100 days. They planned for staff augmentation and how to include shelterees in shelter management.
  • State resources were deemed adequate to operate shelters for the first 3-5 days. The group planned how federal and other resources will replenish supplies at shelters.

Search and Rescue

  • The search and rescue group developed a transportation plan for getting stranded residents out of harm’s way.
  • Planners identified lead and support agencies for search and rescue and established a command structure that would include four areas with up to 800 searchers.


  • The medical care group reviewed and enhanced existing plans. The group determined how to implement existing immunization plans rapidly for tetanus, influenza and other diseases likely to be present after a major hurricane.
  • The group determined how to re-supply hospitals around the state that would face heavy patient loads.
  • The medical action plan included patient movement details and identified probable locations, such as state university campuses, where individuals would receive care and then be transported to hospitals, special needs shelters or regular shelters as necessary.


  • The school group determined that 13,000-15,000 teachers and administrators would be needed to support affected schools. The group acknowledged the role of local school boards and developed strategies for use by local school officials.
  • Staffing strategies included the use of displaced teachers, retired teachers, emergency certified teachers and others eligible for emergency certification. Displaced paraprofessionals would also be recruited to fill essential school positions.
  • The group discussed facility options for increasing student population at undamaged schools and prioritizing repairs to buildings with less damage to assist in normalizing operations
  • The school plan also called for placement or development of temporary schools near temporary housing communities built for hurricane victims.

A second Hurricane Pam Exercise was planned for the summer of 2005, but did not take place, appartently due to a lack of funding. Agencies had anticipated expanding on aspects of response and recovery that were not explored in the 2004 exercise.

The events of hurricane seasons in the 1990s made evacuation one of the leading emergency management issues. Hurricanes Georges in 1998 and Floyd in 1999 precipitated the two largest evacuations in the history of the United States (US) and perhaps, its two largest traffic jams.

Distressingly, the 2004 exercise focused on managing the aftermath of the catastrophe, and did not address initiatitives that would diminish the magnitude of the catastrophe. While repairs to the sagging levees surrounding New Orleans were the province of the Corps of Engineers, not FEMA, improving evacuation and sheltering strategies remained open issues. As a result of the Hurricane Pam Exercise, agencies began applying lessons learned. Those changes included assisting people without transportation. The American Red Cross began developing a program that would ask private citizens to collect people at area churches and transport them.

In Louisiana, the Office of Emergency Preparedness (LOEP) is responsible for developing emergency procedures and coordinating preparedness for hurricanes. The LOEP uses a five-step activation process to transitions from routine activities to responding to a storm. Under routine operation LOEP functions at a Level V Activation status. When a storm strike is imminent the LOEP reaches its highest state of readiness. zones. During a Level I Activation, the LOEP monitors the status of institutional housing and low-mobility groups such as nursing homes, hospitals, and prisons.

A considerable amount of data was collected during the New Orleans evacuation associated with Hurricane Ivan in September 2004. Dr. Jeanne Hurlbert and Dr. John J. Beggs, professors in the Dept. of Sociology at LSU, studied how individuals in the New Orleans area would respond to a major hurricane. Their phone survey excluded those living in households without telephones. Those households are disproportionately poor, minority residents. These individuals are also much more likely than to reside in vulnerable housing. In some parts of the city, the proportion of households that lacks telephones is high — as much as 25%. Based on a 2004 telephone survey [that excluded these households], the LSU professors, found that overall, 68.8% of respondents would leave the area, 9.8% would leave their homes but remain in the area, and 21.4% would remain in their homes. That 21.4% of respondents would remain in their homes is a startling and important statistic, because it indicates that nearly 1 in 4 residents would refuse to leave their homes and 3 in 10 would refuse to leave the area.

The City of New Orleans, with its 1.3 million residents, has limited out-bound route capacities. One of the problems of mandatory evacuations is that they are difficult to enforce. Many people resist being ordered to leave their homes and property by government officials. The number of people without access to transportation in New Orleans, has been estimated as high as 25 to 30 percent of the population. In addition to people without vehicles, potential low mobility evacuees include the indigent, elderly, prisoners, the infirm, and tourists. About 250,000 residents of New Orleans (not including tourists or “special needs” populations) have no means of private transportation. The total number of busses in all of New Orleans would provide only a fraction of the capacity needed to transport all of these people.

Louisiana emergency management officials planned to use any available alternative means of transportation, including National Guard vehicles. They also planned to open local shelters and refuges of last resort for those not able to evacuate.

Terry Tullier, director of the city’s Office of Emergency Preparedness, said “I’m always asked what’s my worst nightmare, and I talk about the generations of New Orleanians who have no historical reference in their brain about how bad this will be… And when I preach the gospel of evacuation, they won’t take it seriously. Evacuation, that’s such a tough decision for our officials to make, so once they make that decision, to have people say, ‘Ah, I ain’t going to go,’ that scares me…”