Largest national hurricane planning exercise since Katrina begins

Published 7:01 pm Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Emergency planners began the largest national hurricane planning drill since Hurricane Katrina on Monday to test new procedures put into place after the botched response to the storm that flooded New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, killing more than a thousand people.

This week’s simulation of “Hurricane Yvette” in the New England states and New York is supposed to show what could happen if a storm overwhelmed state authorities, cut off communication systems and forced the evacuations of thousands of people.

The test will evaluate readiness in a region susceptible to hurricane damage but left largely unscathed for half a century.

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“We have got to be ready,” said Bill Proenza, director of the National Hurricane Center. “We’re overdue. It’s just a matter of time.”

During the last exercise of this scale in 2004, emergency officials simulated what would happen if a large hurricane struck New Orleans. The “Hurricane Pam” drill eerily foreshadowed much of what actually occurred when Katrina made land just east of the city.

After the exercise, federal officials accurately predicted that levees in New Orleans would fail in a major hurricane, much of the city would flood and thousands of people would become refugees.

The chaotic response immediately after Katrina led to changes. FEMA Director Michael Brown resigned under intense pressure, and Congress held hearings into the botched relief operation.

Other changes are built into this exercise.

Last year, FEMA officials placed stashes of food and water on coastal islands in Rhode Island that could be cut off if a hurricane hits, said Marty Bahamonde, a spokesman for FEMA’s New England operations.

Communication breakdowns hampered much of the Katrina response, Bahamonde said. During the exercise this week, the government will test a fleet of satellite communications trucks capable of linking people in a storm-ravaged area to the outside world even if phone lines and cell towers are down.

Besides the communication trucks, FEMA also will mobilize a roving band of sport utility vehicles equipped with radios and video equipment. If a disaster hits, these teams would act as scouts tasked with assessing problems in areas isolated by the storm.

For the first time, a representative from the U.S. Department of Defense is participating in the planning in a liaison position that didn’t exist until after Hurricane Katrina. Also participating are emergency management agencies from the New England states and New York, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and the National Guard.

Like in New Orleans, one major problem should a hurricane threaten New England could be persuading residents along the shoreline that it’s time to flee.

When a major storm approaches, tens of thousands of people might have to move, although some could simply relocate to higher ground a few blocks away, said David Vallee, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Taunton, Mass. State officials this week will plan how to handle the expected surge in traffic on regional highways.

Unlike in the Gulf Coast, hurricanes tend to move rapidly along the East Coast, Vallee said. Once a storm reaches the Carolinas, officials in New England would probably have less than 12 hours to prepare.

“Hurricanes in the Gulf spend the weekend,” he said. “Hurricanes in the Northeast are here for breakfast, out for dinner.”

Ocean surges and winds strong enough to topple trees would make evacuations impossible up to six hours before a hurricane arrives.

“You’ve got to tell them to move while the sun’s still out,” Vallee said. “That’s going to be a tough sell.”