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Agencies drilled for 'worst-case scenario'

From Justine Redman
CNN America Bureau

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FEMA Director Michael Brown

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Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
New Orleans (Louisiana)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a five-day, tabletop exercise last summer, emergency preparedness officials faced an imaginary "worst-case scenario" in which a hurricane hit the New Orleans, Louisiana, area.

A fictional Category 3 Hurricane Pam, with "winds of 120 mph, up to 20 inches of rain... and a storm surge that topped the levees," was the picture presented to officials from 50 federal, local and volunteer organizations, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency dispatch from July 23, 2004.

Participants drew up action plans for dealing with the storm's aftermath in which calls for evacuation were partially heeded, water pumps were overwhelmed, corpses floated in the streets and as many as 60,000 people died -- mostly by drowning.

FEMA Director Michael Brown told CNN's Larry King on Wednesday, "When I became the director of FEMA a couple of years ago, I decided it was time we did some really serious catastrophic disaster planning. So the president gave me money through our budget to do that. And we went around the country to figure out what's the best model we can do for a catastrophic disaster in this country? And we picked New Orleans, Louisiana."

Organizers said "Hurricane Pam" was based on weather and damage information developed by the National Weather Service and other agencies.

"Hurricane Katrina caused the same kind of damage that we anticipated," Brown said Wednesday. "So we planned for it two years ago. Last year, we exercised it. And unfortunately this year, we're implementing it."

A Department of Homeland Security document described the resulting action plans from last year's exercise: Participants determined a need for 1,000 shelters for 100 days. They decided they already had 784 and would need to find the remainder.

The state of Louisiana had resources to operate shelters for three to five days, and plans were made for how federal and other sources could replenish those.

The document also lists the allocation of up to 800 searchers for search-and-rescue operations and plans for disposing of more than 30 million cubic yards of debris and hazardous waste. The group of participants also devised plans for immunization against diseases, the re-supplying of hospitals and establishment of triages at university campuses.

After the drill, FEMA concluded that progress had been made, and that hurricane planning would continue.

But one of the drill participants, Col. Michael L. Brown, then-deputy director of the Louisiana emergency preparedness department, told the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper that, in a worst-case scenario, there would be only so much government agencies could do.

"Residents need to know they'll be on their own for several days in a situation like this," Brown, who is not related to the FEMA director, told the paper.

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