Volume 5, Number 131
4 September 2005

Preparing for Disaster

The Use of Exercises in the Aftermath of Katrina

Dear Friends,

How does a nation prepare for possible disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes? I have some experience in this, which I would like to share.

Disaster Relief Exercises

Between 1997 and 2002, I had the honor of participating in four international civil/military exercises in humanitarian disaster relief. They occurred in El Salvador, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras. Each was attended by delegations from up to 20 nations of the Caribbean and Central America. The small island nations of the region sent only teams of civilian disaster response personnel, the larger countries sent much larger contingents, including battalion-level military commands as well as high-level disaster response leaders.

Some of the larger aid agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also attended, including the Red Cross, OFDA, Salvation Army, and an NGO umbrella group known as InterAction. Their role was vital, of course, but they were there for another reason: a key purpose of these exercises was to test civil-military communications during a major disaster.

A role player answers to the press at the disaster relief exercise FA-HUM 2002, in Honduras.

My role in these exercises was to run a computer simulation model [1] every evening, to determine the social and economic effects, positive and negative, of all actions taken by the civilian and military decision-makers in their responses to the events in the scenario. Every morning we would inform the players of the new situation, based on the effects of their actions and new events in the scenario, and play would commence again.

The typical scenario included both a Category 5 hurricane and a Richter 7 earthquake, striking nearly simultaneously on opposite sides of the Caribbean. The expected responses included standing up one or more Joint Task Forces, and then coordinating the actions of all civilian, local, provincial, national, international, and military players. Needless to say, the coordination part was by far the most difficult.

To fulfill my role in these exercises, I had to speak several times a day with every single team, listening to their ideas and frustrations, asking a lot of detailed questions, and taking notes on all their actions and inactions. It is quite possible that I was in fact the only person who spoke with every team, every day.

Lessons Learned

Exercises are not successful unless some valuable lessons are learned and remembered.

In the case of Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had held exercises from which lessons should have been learned. In 2004, for example, there was a FEMA exercise in which a slow-moving Category 3 hurricane named Pam hit New Orleans. Levees overflowed, the city of New Orleans flooded, and 100,000 "low-mobility" people did not or could not evacuate. Upwards of 25,000 "died" in the exercise, providing a spookily prescient glimpse into the dark realities of Hurricane Katrina. The Lessons of Hurricane Pam were not learned by the right people. Why?

The following is from an interview conducted by Lisa Myers of NBC News, with Ivor van Heerdon, the Louisiana State University hurricane researcher who directed the exercise:

Lisa Myers Interview, NBC News, 2 Sept 05.

Van Heerden says the federal government didn't take it seriously.

"FEMA officials wouldn't listen to me," he says. "Those Corps of Engineers people giggled in the back of the room when we tried to present information."

One recommendation from the exercise: Tent cities should be prepared for the homeless.

"Their response to me was: 'Americans don't live in tents,' and that was about it," recalls Van Heerden.

It is certainly true that few government agencies, apart from the military, use exercises to test policies and plans. Corporations and NGOs are similarly unaccustomed to this practice. In contrast, the US military seems to make a religion of exercises.

The typical military exercise is preceded by months of detailed preparation. During the game each participant takes his or her role seriously, seldom or never stepping out of character to question the scenario or conduct of the exercise. All questions and problems are saved for the all-important final meeting, known as the "after-action review" (AAR). Meanwhile an independent AAR team has been laboring in the background, observing every aspect of the exercise and making detailed notes on what they think went right and wrong. The final AAR meeting is a no-holds-barred examination of the entire exercise, attended by all participants. Afterwards, the AAR team writes up a Lessons Learned document, which is the means for transmitting the experiences gained in the exercise to people who may, in the future, need to know what happened. In a word, the Lessons Learned document becomes the institutional memory of the exercise.

That is how it should work, in theory. In practice, based on the 15 major peacekeeping and disaster relief exercises that I have attended, exercises frequently fall short of the mark. For example:

  • the design of the exercise often fails to include breakdowns in communications,
  • the after-action review is seldom as bluntly honest as it needs to be for lessons to emerge,
  • the Lessons Learned document is not circulated to the offices and agencies who need it most, and
  • even when circulated, the Lessons Learned are not read by the people who most need to understand the issues.

Despite all of these problems, the technology of anticipatory exercises is still our best means for preparing for future disasters. We need more exercises, we need to design and execute them with great care, and above all our institutions need to learn their lessons.

Questions of Scale

CivPol headquarters, peacekeeping exercise PKO-South-99, in Bolivia.

In one of the multi-national peacekeeping exercises I attended, the scenario specified an event in which several large bombs totally destroyed the water purification system of a city of half a million people, the size of New Orleans. I grabbed the role player for the mayor, and we set off to inform the battalion commander in charge of the region of what had happened.

Battalion headquarters was a picture of intense military efficiency. An officer was updating the huge situation map on the wall, the command staff was meeting in hushed tones around a table, messengers were dashing in and out. The executive officer greeted us. The mayor handed him the scripted description of the event and, speaking through an interpreter, asked him for help. The commanding officer was summoned, and we sat down.

"Your primary need is for clean water?" asked the commander.

"Yes. The river is polluted, there is cholera upstream from us, and we have no other source of potable water," explained the mayor.

"Right. I have four water trucks. We will start trucking in clean water beginning tomorrow morning. I need the city to establish a delivery point and a way to distribute the water that we bring in."

As a response to an emergency situation, this commander's concept was quite typical. He looked at what he could offer, and did his best with the resources on hand. From his point of view, he had no more resources to offer. He had done his absolute best. He reported both the event and his response up the chain of command, to the brigade of which his unit was a part, and that was that.

There are several things wrong with this all-too-common way of responding. The first and most important is a question of scale. Four 1000-gallon trucks to supply a city of 500,000 with potable water? Obviously this was going to be grossly insufficient. The commander had not correctly compared the scale of need to the scale of his resources, and had not been able to visualize the horror and magnitude of the cholera epidemic lurking in his future. The second error is that he never contemplated civilian solutions.

The correct response would have been to signal an emergency situation to the Humanitarian Operations Center, so that the civilian NGOs responsible for public water and health could respond on the scale necessary, with backup from larger military units. A light infantry battalion cannot overcome a combined water and health emergency in a city of that size [2].

Similar failures to cope with questions of scale and coordination pervaded the US response to the possibility of a large Category 5 hurricane. As it happened, the swath of Katrina's destruction encompassed 90,000 square miles of territory, including millions of people and a major port city. The planned scale of FEMA response was wholly inadequate to the task posed by Katrina, even though the scale was clearly evident in the Hurricane Pam exercise of last year. Confronted with problems on a scale for which they had no plans, FEMA delayed for days while additional resources were found and mobilized.

Looking to the Future

Seeing into the future is difficult at best, and when we are concerned with the future possibilities of rare but catastrophic events it becomes harder still. Yet we do have a tool which has proven its worth: detailed anticipatory exercises. At the risk of appearing to promote my own specialty, I strongly recommend the following:

  • that we run even more exercises, at every level of government and within civilian NGOs,
  • that we take these exercises very seriously, for what they have to say,
  • that we take care to distribute the lessons learned very widely,
  • that we insist that our public officials address the shortcomings revealed by these exercises.
Related TQE Letters
132: Katrina, Part 2
133: Thanks, Germany!

As others have pointed out, how can the USA expect to cope with the next city-wide or regional emergency, whether terrorist or natural, if we cannot cope with a Category 5 hurricane hitting a large city? There is simply no excuse for the feeble and tardy response of FEMA, after four long years of thought and preparation for terrorist attacks.

Sincerely your friend,

Loren Cobb


[1] The simulation is known as DEXES, written by me in 1995 for use in exercises for UN peacekeeping, disaster relief operations, and complex humanitarian emergencies. It is a dynamic simulation of refugee flows, public health, public opinion, the economy, and ethnic relations in post-civil war societies. DEXES is now considered obsolescent, having been superseded by better technology.

[2] If the light infantry battalion in question were from the US, then it would not have had even one water truck. In the US Army, water, food, fuel, medical stations, and repair services are supplied by a forward support battalion, working at the brigade level. Even a forward support battalion would have found it very difficult to meet the needs of the entire city in addition to its own troops. On the other hand, Oxfam, a well-respected NGO that specializes in water supply and systems repair, could have met the need. To obtain Oxfam's help in a complex humanitarian disaster, military requests should be channeled through a Humanitarian Operations Center (also known as a CMOC). By whatever name, this center is the vital nexus for civil-military liaison and coordination in peacekeeping and disaster relief operations.


The Quaker Economist announces with pride and pleasure the online publication of A History of Wealth and Poverty: Why Some Nations are Rich and Many Poor, by Jack Powelson.

Originally published in 1994 by the University of Michigan Press as Centuries of Economic Endeavor, this new electronic edition is now available to the public at no cost. Click here to see the Table of Contents.

Traducimos esta obra en español, abajo del titulo Historia de Riqueza y Probreza. Esperamos la finalización en enero de 2006.

Readers' Comments:

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Loren, Thanks for writing this.

— Ann Dixon (born and raised in New Orleans).

Thanks Loren for this immensely valuable description of the disaster training that you and others present and update on a regular basis. I will send your letter on to lists and  groups which can use this information effectively such as my own governor, Atlanta's mayor, our congresspersons, and the Quaker meetings with which I am affiliated.

— Janet Minshall

Perhaps you're being realistic, but somebody needs to say "there is no part for governments in disaster recovery." Governments invariably screw up disaster recovery. See this chart and look at the date I wrote it.

— Russ Nelson.

I believe Mr Nelson is missing the point. Disaster preparedness and response begins at home and not in Washington DC. It is unfortunate to say, but our society has been plagued by a state of mind in which for many years people have taken disaster relief for granted, with perhaps only a few exceptions. New Orleans was a rude wake up call that clearly demonstrated to the nation, and for that matter to the world, that there was a lack of effective command and control at all levels, starting at mayoral level, then state, and finally at federal with the infamous FEMA leadership.

This TQE essay is absolutely correct in stating that using exercises and experiences can be effective, but only if the lessons are applied. For example, Florida faced several disasters just the year before Katrina. Sixty-two counties had emergency operation centers in place, state control from Tallahassee was in place, and although we lost 27 lives the response by the government was very well synchronized. Why? Because Floridians took things seriously. They were well informed prior to impact, stayed in place during the disaster, and afterwards followed a well-synchronized emergency information plan. All of this boils down to rehearsal and practice, complemented by an effective use of media and other forms of communication. Perhaps the best example of the benefits of rehearsal and practice can be seen in New York City's response to the 9/11 attack, under Mayor Giulliani.

— Mike Gonzalez, Miami, Florida. [18 Nov 2006]


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting, Editor.
  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2005 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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