The Perfect "Storm Scenario":
The Hurricane Pam Exercise

Michael H. Glantz
1 February
2006

The Perfect "Storm Scenario": The Hurricane Pam Exercise

 

In July 2004, several government agencies were involved in playing out a hypothetical future focused in Louisiana and a strong Category 3 hurricane named Hurricane Pam. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) website has a press release that was issued after the completion of this exercise. It praised this effort to get a handle on required responses to a potentially devastating tropical storm making landfall in the highly vulnerable state of Louisiana, especially New Orleans . This "perfect storm scenario" was played as a game, at a time when no such hurricane was threatening the central part of the Gulf Coast.

The characteristics of hypothetical Hurricane Pam were described in the press release in the following way, entitled "Hurricane Pam Exercise Concludes":

Hurricane Pam sustained winds of 120 mph, up to 20 inches of rain in parts of southeast Louisiana and a 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. Emergency officials from 50 parish, state, federal, and volunteer organizations faced this scenario during a five-day exercise held this week [July 2004] at State Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge.

According to the release, the conclusions that were reached by those participating in the scenario, the importance of which we have no reason to challenge:

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

The regional director then noted, "we made great progress in our preparedness efforts." No reason to doubt his statement. They probably did... on paper.

The FEMA press release also provided a partial list of the Plan of Action identified for a "perfect storm scenario." The following key essential activities were highlighted: debris removal, the need for landfills, the need for shelters, the search-and-rescue of stranded residents, plans for support of hospitals around the state that would bear the burden of refugees from the flooded coastal areas, and the impacts and needs of schools in the affected zone, including consideration of using the displaced teachers and retired teachers, among others, to fulfill "essential" school positions.

After having studied early warning systems for some years, I have come to believe that all (that is, every) early warning systems get into trouble when they are tested by Nature. And the test for this perfect "storm scenario" (the Hurricane Pam exercise) came 13 months later, in late August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, especially along the Louisiana and Mississippi coastlines, and headed inland as a strong Category 3 hurricane.

Hurricane Katrina slamming into Louisiana, satellite photo taken Monday, 29 August 2005

Many of the responses identified by exercise participants to the forecasts, impacts and reconstruction in the disaster zone were great ideas. When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, however, the potential responses identified in the exercise were, for the most part, either poorly pursued or not pursued at all.

What history tells us of the development of a perfect storm scenario more than a year in advance of a major hurricane (like the one designed for use in the scenario) is that a thoughtful, well-identified, multiagency developed scenario of a disaster management plan in no way guarantees that a thoughtful, effective, and efficient response to the disaster would automatically follow.

Concerns from various quarters have often been expressed about the vulnerability to extreme flooding of New Orleans and its population, especially the poor. Hurricane Pam was a realistic "perfect scenario" of an extreme event that was foreseeable; people in the region have borne the brunt of hurricanes and several near-misses before, even in recent times.

Many people have stories to tell about Katrina. Many have proposed designs for future reconstruction of the disaster zone. But who is listening? How do you get a target audience to listen to your story or scenario? In this case, it seems that even with all the relevant players involved (decision makers, local to federal) the Hurricane Pam exercise apparently failed to serve a purpose in real life. It serves as yet another example of disaster lessons identified but lessons that were apparently not learned (that is, applied) by those with the authority to apply them.

One can only wonder why a level of urgency was not felt among the relevant disaster management agencies at the time, given an excellent National Weather Service forecast about 60 hours in advance of Hurricane Katrina's landfall.

Hurricane Katrina trajectory, indicating strength of hurricane as it moved first west, then north

In economics as well as in disaster studies, people often refer to risk takers and those who tend to shy away from taking risks (risk averse). However, no one talks about "risk makers." These are people whose decisions put others at risk, while they themselves are not in harm's way as a result of the impacts of their decisions. With regard to Hurricane Katrina, the FEMA director was already a risk maker. However, the people who had to face those heightened risks (such as those in the lower Ninth Ward) ended up having to live for the rest of their lives with the negative impacts of bad decisions made by others.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Louisiana congressman says e-mails written by the government's emergency response chief as Hurricane Katrina raged show a lack of concern for the unfolding tragedy and a failure in leadership. (4 November 2005)

Risk makers, for their part, go back to their offices, downplay their responsibilities for disaster consequences, and go back to the proverbial drawing board to develop new plans that will once again most likely put still others at risk in the future. They often remain physically as well as politically unharmed.

The Hurricane Pam exercise, the perfect "storm scenario," apparently tempted Fate and did so at the expense of Gulf Coast residents. Fate won.

--Michael H. Glantz

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