In a Nutshell
Hurricane Katrina was a national tragedy, all the more so because it had already happened. In 2004, FEMA and the National Guard ran a training simulation for an apocalyptic hurricane touching down in New Orleans. The details were nearly identical. Unfortunately, nobody at the training centre believed it could happen.
The Whole Bushel
The quote above is an extract from the ‘Hurricane Pam’ scenario; a 2004 training exercise meant to prepare FEMA and the Engineer Corps for a hurricane devastating New Orleans. Looking back at it now, the predictions are almost creepy: collapsed levees; a lack of shelter for refugees; FEMA failing to get supplies into the city in time. Unfortunately, the delegates at the exercise didn’t agree.
“Those FEMA officials wouldn’t listen to me,” the simulation’s designer, Ivor van Heerden, later claimed, “those Corps of Engineers people giggled in the back of the room when we tried to present information.”
Van Heerden was Louisiana State’s resident hurricane expert. He’d been warning for years that a storm surge could flood New Orleans and Hurricane Pam was his attempt to shock the establishment into listening to him. It didn’t work. When he talked about the levees breaking, the Engineer Corps dismissed his concerns. When he raised the possibility of setting up a ‘tent city’ for refugees, one delegate barked: “Americans don’t live in tents!” At the time of Hurricane Pam, it was thought terrorism would cause the next big disaster—next to a radicalized hijacker using a plane as a targeted missile, a hurricane seemed almost quaint.
We don’t need to go into what happened next. A year later, the fictional Hurricane Pam became the very-real Hurricane Katrina. 1,833 people were killed in a disaster so mismanaged it sparked accusations of racism. New Orleans was gutted, FEMA failed to get supplies to victims for five days and violence engulfed much of the city. Katrina may have happened once already, but it would take the real-life destruction of Louisiana for its lessons to be learned.