Money Congress set aside for evacuation plan went elsewhere

Rita Beamish: The Associated Press

As far back as eight years ago, Congress ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop a plan for evacuating New Orleans during a massive hurricane, but the money instead went to studying the causeway bridge that spans the city’s Lake Pontchartrain, officials say.

The outcome provides one more example of the government’s failure to prepare for a massive but foreseeable catastrophe, said the lawmaker who helped secure the money for FEMA to develop the evacuation plan.

“They never used it for the intended purpose,” said former Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La. “The whole intent was to give them resources so they could plan an evacuation of New Orleans that anticipated that a very large number of people would never leave.”

In Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, attention has focused on the inability of local and federal officials to evacuate or prepare for the large number of poor people, many of them minorities, who had no access to transportation and remained behind.

That possibility was one of the concerns that led Congress in 1997 to set aside $500,000 for FEMA to create “a comprehensive analysis and plan of all evacuation alternatives for the New Orleans metropolitan area.”

Frustrated two years later that nothing materialized, Congress strengthened its directive. This time it ordered “an evacuation plan for a Category 3 or greater storm, a levee break, flood or other natural disaster for the New Orleans area.”

The $500,000 that Congress appropriated for the evacuation plan went to a commission that studied future options for the 24-mile bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney said.

The hefty report produced by the Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission “primarily was not about evacuation,” said Robert Lambert, the general manager for the bridge expressway. “In general it was an overview of all the things we need to do” for the causeway through 2016.

Lambert said he could not trace how or if FEMA money came to the commission. Nor could Shelby LaSalle, a causeway consulting engineer who worked on the plan.
LaSalle said it would be “ludicrous” to consider his report an evacuation plan, although it had a transportation evacuation section, dated Dec. 19, 1997. That part was tacked on mainly to promote the causeway for future designation as an official evacuation route, LaSalle said.

“We didn’t do anything for FEMA,” he added.

Asked why the congressional mandate was never fulfilled, Barry Scanlon, senior vice president in the consulting firm of former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, said he believes the agency did what it needed when it gave the money to the state.

“FEMA received an earmark which it processed through to the state as instructed by Congress,” Scanlon said. Witt is now a private consultant to Gov. Kathleen Blanco, D-La., on the Katrina aftermath.

Tauzin said he, too, could never find out where the money went. “They gave it to the causeway commission? That’s wacky,” he said.

At the time eight years ago, the Louisiana delegation had plenty of political muscle to get the money. Then-Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which controls the government’s purse strings.

Livingston, now a lobbyist, said he could not explain what happened either, although he knew of other predictive hurricane studies over the years.

“Do I wish the study had been made? Sure, but now that’s by the boards. We’re doing the best we can right now to repair and rebuild,” he said.

FEMA typically contracts its studies to private or government entities. Kinerney, the agency spokesman, said it appeared the money went through the Louisiana government. State emergency and transportation officials said they did not recall it.

After nothing came of its first directive, FEMA addressed the need for an evacuation plan “off and on” over the years, Kinerney said. Last year, the agency undertook the massive “Hurricane Pam” project that was supposed to create a comprehensive emergency plan for New Orleans.

That work was unfinished when Katrina struck, though its first phase involved an elaborate hurricane simulation that was eerily predictive of Katrina’s disaster.

Asked about any earlier FEMA-funded plan, Mark Smith, spokesman for the state Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said, “To the best of our knowledge we can find no information on this.”

Congress’ 1999 language directed that FEMA consult with that state agency as well as the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

FEMA’s parent agency, the Homeland Security Department, did provide $75,000 to print 1 million evacuation maps that were distributed this year for the state’s updated transportation evacuation blueprint, state transportation spokesman Mark Lambert said.

That plan used phased evacuation orders and reverse-flow traffic patterns to avoid the highway snarls New Orleans saw during Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

But that plan was designed for traffic management, not to provide transportation or contingencies for the infirm, elderly and poor who could not get out on their own, officials said.