Water Industry News
While government slept: URS
Corp simulation predicted Katrina results
David R. Baker, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, September 9, 2005
Government officials gathered in Baton Rouge a year ago to deal with a powerful hurricane bearing down on New Orleans.
They faced a nightmare scenario. A flooded city, 1 million evacuees, 60,000 dead -- all the work of Hurricane Pam.
The storm was not real. Staged with the help of a San Francisco company, Pam was a simulation designed to force government agencies to examine -- and possibly rethink -- their disaster plans.
The exercise, conducted with the help of URS Corp., projected storm water surging over levees and pouring into New Orleans, forming a contaminated pool 10 to 20 feet deep. More than 500,000 buildings were destroyed in the scenario, coastal gasoline refineries were shut, and boats and helicopters were needed to rescue thousands of stranded citizens.
In short, Pam looked a lot like Hurricane Katrina.
"It's eerie how close it is," said Madhu Beriwal, founder and president of Innovative Emergency Management Inc., based in Baton Rouge. The company led a team of three firms, including URS, that created the simulation, working under contract for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA has come under blistering criticism for its slow response to Katrina. Beriwal said she isn't sure whether Pam shaped the way FEMA and state and local agencies responded to the real-life catastrophe. Those who participated in last year's exercise have copies of the recommendations it produced.
"So people are looking at it," she said. "I don't know how much of it was used."
FEMA representatives did not return phone calls for this story. In a press release last year, however, an agency official said the exercise helped refine hurricane planning in the New Orleans area.
Working with federal and state officials, Beriwal's firm and its two partners devised a scenario that pictured a hurricane hitting land west of New Orleans, with winds of 120 miles per hour. The National Hurricane Center provided storm surge projections that the companies used to estimate the likely destruction.
Those estimates were given to the more than 270 people who participated in the Hurricane Pam exercise, held in July 2004. The participants represented city, state and federal government agencies, as well as volunteer organizations.
Pam's mock damage, spread over 13 Louisiana parishes, was extensive. Phone and sewer services were knocked out, chemical plants flooded. About 200 miles of road lay under at least 10 feet of water. About 175,000 people were injured, 200,000 became sick, and more than 60,000 were killed.
Part of Pam's impact derived from the path its creators chose. Having the hurricane's eye pass west of New Orleans meant the city would face the full brunt of the storm's force, since hurricane winds and precipitation during landfall are strongest in their northeast quadrant.
"We wanted to create catastrophic conditions that would force people to think outside the box and think how they'd respond to it," Beriwal said.
Katrina, in contrast, landed east of the city.
Working in teams, participants in the weeklong exercise came up with recommendations. About 1,000 shelters would be needed for evacuees. The shelters would need to stay open 100 days, but state resources could only keep them stocked for five days at most.
With many residents stranded by floodwaters, boats would be needed for about 20,000 rescues. Helicopters would be needed for 1,000 more rescues.
A team focusing on health problems discussed how to rapidly immunize residents against tetanus, influenza and other diseases that could break out in the hurricane's aftermath. Team members identified locations where the sick or wounded could receive emergency treatment.
Beriwal declined to provide a copy of the written recommendations, saying that under her company's contract, the document could only be released by FEMA.
In a press release at the end of the exercise, a FEMA official said participants had learned much from Hurricane Pam.
"We made great progress this week in our preparedness," said Ron Castleman, who was FEMA's regional director at the time. He left the agency late last year.
"Disaster response teams developed action plans in critical areas such as search and rescue, medical care, sheltering, temporary housing, school restoration and debris management," Castleman said in the release. "These plans are essential for quick response to a hurricane but will also help in other emergencies."
San Francisco's URS Corp. declined to comment other than to acknowledge its work on the contract with Beriwal's firm. About 1,100 URS employees and contractors are now in the states hit by Katrina, helping with disaster-relief efforts.
Although much of the Hurricane Pam exercise foreshadowed Katrina, Beriwal hopes that the real storm's casualty figure proves to be far lower than Pam's. Considering the devastation Katrina wrought, the simulation's accuracy gives her no comfort.
"I can not be pleased with it," she said. "This is our state. ... This is appalling."
E-mail David R. Baker at email@example.com.