A dry plan

Louisiana's official hurricane plan says absolutely zero about how to handle an evacuation once New Orleans is flooded.

Published September 2, 2005 11:23PM (EDT)

Engineers have warned for decades that a massive hurricane might drown New Orleans. So why are the efforts to evacuate the city in such chaos? Didn't somebody have a plan?

Well, yes, kind of. The "Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Evacuation and Sheltering Plan" does note that a hurricane the strength of Katrina might push a 20-foot storm surge into New Orleans, that levees might break, pumps might fail, and the drinking water supply, electricity and sewage system might go kaput. The plan "prescribes the actions to be taken at each stage of a catastrophic hurricane emergency."

But the plan doesn't mention anything about how a killer hurricane might make evacuating the city rather tricky, much less a logistical nightmare. In fact, it says absolutely zero about how to handle an evacuation once the city is flooded.

The plan appears on the Web site of the state's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness under a button labeled "Plans." It was last revised in January 2000 and goes hand-in-hand with the state's Emergency Operations Plan, which outlines government agencies' responsibilities in big emergencies.

Mark Smith, the office spokesman, did not return requests for comment on the plan. In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Walter Baumy, chief of the Army Corps engineering division in New Orleans, says authorities could not have anticipated Katrina's impact. "There was a plan in place," Baumy said. "[Katrina's impact] was much more than envisioned. The city has never seen anything like this."

According to the plan, state officials had a good idea how a storm like Katrina would deluge the city. "Tidal surge, associated with the 'worst case' Category 3, 4 or 5 Hurricane Scenario for the Greater New Orleans Metropolitan Area," it reads, "could cause a maximum inundation of 20 feet above sea level in some of the parishes in the region, not including tidal effects, wind waves and storm rainfall."

The evacuation planners also knew that New Orleans could not handle that much water. "The area is protected by an extensive levee system, but above normal water levels and hurricane surge could cause levee overtopping or failures," it reads. It also says the city's now-famous pumps might give out, and that a catastrophic hurricane would result in "complete roof failure on many residences and industrial buildings" and might require a "massive evacuation." It just does not say how to do that when 80 percent of New Orleans is underwater.

The plan states that to avoid danger, most people should get in their cars and drive away before the storm comes. "The primary means of hurricane evacuation will be personal vehicles," it reads. School buses and government vehicles will move everybody without a car. Interstate highways will be converted into one-way outbound evacuation routes (All of that did happen.)

When the approaching storm produces high winds and rising water, the evacuation routes should be closed when driving gets dangerous. "As evacuation routes are closed, people who are still in the risk area will be directed to last resort refuge within the area," the plan reads. It is unclear if the authors understood that as many as 100,000 people might be left behind or might decide to stay in the city.

That's it. The rest of the document outlines how to let residents back into New Orleans. It says roads should be clear, flood waters should have receded, and public utilities should be up and running. It says nothing about when people can return. Officials now estimate that fixing the levees and getting the pumps working to dry out the city might take 30 days. Mayor C. Ray Nagin predicts that residents won't be able to return to the city for 16 weeks.

Hindsight is 20-20. But the state's hurricane evacuation plan appears to have been nearly blind to the devastation in store. It says nothing about people having to be air-lifted from their rooftops. It says nothing about how looting, violence or sheer desperation-driven anarchy might overtake the city. It says nothing about untold gallons of chemicals, gasoline, excrement and dead bodies floating through the city. It does say, though, that people should get in their cars and drive away before the storm, or hide in the Superdome, until the water recedes.

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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