Simulation Predicted Storm's Havoc

Homes remain surrounded by floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, Pool) AP

As Katrina roared into the Gulf of Mexico, emergency planners pored over maps and charts of a hurricane simulation that projected 61,290 dead and 384,257 injured or sick in a catastrophic flood that would leave swaths of southeast Louisiana uninhabitable for more than a year.

These planners were not involved in the frantic preparations for Katrina. By coincidence, they were working on a yearlong project to prepare federal and state officials for a Category 3 hurricane striking New Orleans.

Their fictitious storm eerily foreshadowed the havoc wrought by Category 4 Katrina a few days later, raising questions about whether government leaders did everything possible - as early as possible - to protect New Orleans residents from a well-documented threat.

After watching many of their predictions prove grimly accurate, "Hurricane Pam" planners now hope they were wrong about one detail - the death toll. The 61,290 estimate is six times what New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has warned people to expect.

"I pray to God we don't see those numbers," Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "My gut is ... we don't. But we just don't know."

The known Katrina death toll was less than 400 on Friday, but officials expect it to skyrocket once emergency teams comb through 90,000 square miles of Gulf Coast debris. Fears are particularly acute in New Orleans, where countless corpses lie submerged beneath a toxic gumbo that engulfed the city after levees gave way.

The death toll is just one of the many chilling details in a 412-page report obtained by the AP from a government official involved in the Hurricane Pam project. Written in ominous present-tense language, the report predicts that:

  • Flood waters would surge over levees, creating "a catastrophic mass casualty/mass evacuation" and leaving drainage pumps crippled for up to six months. "It will take over one year to re-enter areas most heavily impacted," the report estimated.

  • More than 600,000 houses and 6,000 businesses would be affected, more than two-thirds of them destroyed. Nearly a quarter-million children would be out of school. "All 40 medical facilities in the impacted area (are) isolated and useless," it says.

  • Local officials would be quickly overwhelmed with the five-digit death toll, 187,862 people injured and 196,395 falling ill. A half million people would be homeless.

    The report calls evacuees "refugees" - a term now derided by the Bush administration - and says they could be housed at college campuses, military barracks, hotels, travel trailers, recreational vehicles, private homes, cottages, churches, Boy Scout camps and cruise ships.

    "Federal support must be provided in a timely manner to save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate severe damage," the report says. "This may require mobilizing and deploying assets before they are requested via normal (National Response Plan) protocols."

    On the defensive, White House officials have said Louisiana and New Orleans officials did not give FEMA full control over disaster relief. The so-called Hurricane Pam plan, which was never put into effect, envisions giving the federal government authority to act without waiting for an SOS from local officials.

    • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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