BP Oil Spill, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11—Will We Learn From History?

A Message from IEM President and CEO, Madhu Beriwal

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

As we approach the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I am reminded again of the lessons that Katrina taught. These lessons are especially important now, as a new monster lurks in the Gulf. This time it is not a hurricane—it’s oil gushing from BP’s exploded Deepwater Horizon rig. And waters are warmer this year than in the past few years, foretelling a bad hurricane season.

I remember these words:

“There is terrible potential for fatal harm to the region and its inhabitants from a storm of this severity … The northerly track of the storms depicted here seems to place a majestic volume of surge, driven inland from the Gulf, against the levee systems south of New Orleans … Levees seem to be overtopped for the first time in major sections … Populated areas could have most residential and some commercial structures destroyed totally … All human efforts feasible should be made to secure the largest evacuation response rate possible.”

I, Madhu Beriwal, was the author of those words in 1985—20 years before Hurricane Katrina struck. This scenario and 49 others were included in the Southeast Louisiana Storm Surge Atlas. The atlas was a single document detailing the varieties of hurricanes that could affect New Orleans. The consequences of such storms were not new to me then or now.

In 2004, IEM created a catastrophic hurricane scenario for an All-Government exercise focused on response planning for New Orleans. That hypothetical scenario was called Hurricane Pam. One year later, the hypothetical Pam became reality in Hurricane Katrina.

In the 2006 Senate hearing on Hurricane Katrina, Senators called Pam “a wakeup call that could not be ignored.” She pointed out that “the hypothetical problems identified in Pam predict[ed] with eerie accuracy the all-too-real problems of Katrina—overcrowded shelters undersupplied with food, water, and other essentials; blocked highways with thousands of people trapped in flooded areas; hospitals swamped with victims and running out of fuel for their emergency generators. The list goes on and on.” There may have been a failure of imagination in preparing for 9/11, but there was certainly no failure of imagination in planning for Katrina.

It is lamentable that some mischaracterized Hurricane Pam as an “evacuation plan.” Evacuation planning was not part of the Hurricane Pam exercise. The exercise focused on how all levels of government would manage the effects of the simulated hurricane after landfall…after the evacuation had already occurred.

If we continue to paint the historical picture inaccurately, we will not learn the valuable lessons from the Hurricane Pam exercise and from Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina had the highest evacuation rate ever reported for a natural disaster. These rates were dramatically higher than for previous hurricanes in Southeast Louisiana. What can we learn from this? Even though Pam wasn’t an evacuation plan, it foretold the potential consequences of a catastrophic hurricane extremely well. Given typical evacuation rates and policies, Pam predicted loss of life several orders of magnitude higher than what actually happened in Katrina. Knowing the consequences—having discussed them in multiple workshops—officials were motivated to convince many more people to evacuate than would have otherwise.

Another lesson from Hurricane Pam is that you can’t develop a plan today and execute it successfully tomorrow. The plan must become part of the DNA of every response organization involved. This can take months of exercising, training, testing, and refining. Take a football team, for example. The coach can have a playbook of exceptional plays developed, but if the players haven’t practiced the plays as a team, they cannot execute them successfully to win the game. If we want to improve our ability to respond to disasters, we need sustained, concentrated effort to build the plans, build the teams, and practice.

With 30 years of experience in emergency management and a Master’s degree in transportation planning, with the experience of working floods in Louisiana in the early 1980s, with my experience on the Army Science Board, and with my experience on the Defense Science Board before 9/11, I strongly believe what I say next.

We need a new framework for how we plan, respond, and recover from catastrophes. We need detailed plans that every level of government has agreed to and can act on. I made this same statement in my testimony to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in January 2006. (To read the full testimony, click on the link next to Madhu Beriwal on the Committee’s page here: http://www.hsgac.senate.gov/hearings/-hurricane-pam-exercise

As I said then and believe now, “the National Response Plan is a good strategic document. However, integrated Incident Action Plans with sufficient detail are required to handle catastrophic events impacting specific communities. Catastrophes require coordinated action from Federal, state, and local agencies, as well as the private sector. For catastrophic planning to be successful, officials from all levels must be involved and committed to the process and the results. This is not always easy to achieve. There are conflicting priorities, turf issues, and resource concerns.”

The BP Oil Spill is yet another reminder that we need such a change in how we plan, respond, and recover from catastrophes.

There was 9/11. There was Hurricane Katrina. There is the BP Oil Spill.

Can we learn from history?

Madhu Beriwal

Madhu Beriwal is a nationally-recognized thought leader in emergency management, with more than 30 years of experience in disaster and emergency management, homeland security, and national defense. She has pioneered efforts to help Federal, state, and local agencies optimize limited funding to achieve maximum protection.

Madhu Beriwal is a member of the prestigious Army Science Board, and a former member of the Defense Science Board’s Task Force for Intelligence Needs on Homeland Defense, created at the request of the DoD and the CIA to address counter-terrorism intelligence requirements for homeland defense. She is also a guest lecturer for the Homeland Security Executive Leadership Program at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security in Monterey, California, where Ms. Beriwal teaches courses on Global Terrorism and Emergency Management.

Madhu Beriwal holds a Master’s degree in Urban Planning (Transportation and Land Use) and a Bachelor’s degree in Geography and Economics.