War Stories

The Worst-Laid Plans

Why was emergency planning so awful?

When a new president of the United States takes office, one of his first tasks is to hear a briefing on the nuclear-war plan. Chances are nil that he’ll ever have to carry out this plan. But if he did, his choice of action might be more fateful, and the consequences more catastrophic, than any event in human history. So, the briefing—or, as it’s known, The Briefing—remains the first order of presidential business, the defining distinction of the job. A staff member on the National Security Council, if not the president himself, is routinely apprised of changes. The plan’s logistical aspects are periodically rehearsed. A military officer carrying a briefcase that contains the nuclear-launch codes escorts the president constantly. The briefing, the officer, the plan, and the codes all remain the same, or gradually evolve, regardless of whether a Republican or Democrat has been elected. Nobody would think of appointing political hacks to run even the most trivial aspect of this well-oiled machine.

One lesson of Hurricane Katrina is that emergency-management planning ought to receive the same attention and professionalism as nuclear-war planning. Floods and hurricanes are less cataclysmic than nuclear war, but they’re serious enough—and far more likely to happen.

This is a lesson for mayors and governors as well as presidents.

In 2000, Louisiana state officials produced a remarkably detailed “State Emergency Operations Plan,” including an equally impressive “Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Evacuation and Sheltering Plan.” If this plan had been followed, Katrina probably would have wrought far less havoc. But it seems to have been laid in a drawer and forgotten. An April 2005 update, issued by the state’s office of homeland security and emergency preparedness, includes a page headlined “Record of Changes to Plan,” with columns labeled “Change Number,” “Date,” “Part Affected,” “Date Posted,” and “Name of Poster.” The page is blank; the plan had not been altered in the previous five years—a fairly sure sign that it hadn’t been read, either.

On the federal level, it’s not clear whether there was a plan worthy of the name. In July 2004, the Homeland Security Council—chaired by a White House adviser and consisting of 70 officials from 18 federal departments and agencies—published a manual titled Planning Scenarios Created for Use in National, Federal, State, and Local Homeland Security Preparedness Activities. The document laid out 15 scenarios for various types of disasters involving nuclear, biological, chemical, radiological, and cyber attacks, as well as major earthquakes and hurricanes. Each scenario outlined the likely damage and what steps should be taken in preparation, relief, and rescue.

What’s striking about this document—the result of so much effort, devoted to such a high-profile issue of public policy, and designed to be distributed to emergency-management offices nationwide—is how useless it is. Take the chapter on major hurricanes. Its forecast of effects: “Casualties: 1,000 fatalities, 5,000 hospitalizations … Infrastructure Damage: Buildings destroyed, large debris … Economic impact: Millions of dollars … Recovery timeline: Months.” One’s first reaction, upon reading this: Any grade-school kid with an encyclopedia could have written it.

The list of recommended actions is no more reassuring. For instance: “Care must include medical assistance; shelter and temporary housing assistance; emergency food, water, and ice provision; and sanitary facility provision.” Not only is this head-slappingly obvious, but when Katrina whirred its way up the coast, the officials in charge didn’t follow even these elementary guidelines. Worse still, the chapters on planning scenarios for various terrorist attacks are no more informative or specific.

One could argue that these sorts of generalized guidelines are necessary first steps in the creation of an emergency-response strategy. But this document was published a year and a half after the Department of Homeland Security began operating. There’s no good reason why it couldn’t have appeared a month and a half after.

The DHS published an updated version of Planning Scenarios this past April. However, only officials with proper clearances can obtain or download a copy. Are all relevant federal, state, and local emergency-management officials cleared to read it? And is the second edition any better than the first? If an independent body gets around to investigating the terrible planning for Hurricane Katrina and the implications for future disasters, man-made or otherwise, these should be two of the questions.