Preparing for the Worst

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Madhu Beriwal equates disaster planning with marathon running. "You train and time yourself and figure out what you need to do to achieve it," she says. As the president of Innovative Emergency Management, Inc., in Baton Rouge, La., Beriwal knows about training for marathon-size catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina. Her company played a role in the Hurricane Pam simulation, which involved almost 300 officials getting ready for a major-category storm hitting New Orleans. But after witnessing the devastation left by Katrina and the blundered response from relief officials, Beriwal wonders if the training needs to be rethought. "The system failed," she told TIME when asked who in the end was to blame. "We all share the blame." After saying this, she begins to cry.

Beriwal is a native of Calcutta, India, who came to the U.S. 25 years ago. After earning a master's degree in urban planning, she gained a reputation in Louisiana as an expert in disaster preparation. Like many others in similar roles, Beriwal feels a measure of guilt when watching the images of flood victims. Sheís also aware that some of the tragedy was because of the "disaster sub-culture" of any population—which is a certain level of resistance to pre-storm evacuation. Some people simply wonít evacuate.

Itís worth noting that I.E.M.'s Pam preparedness plan, which FEMA contracted for almost $1 million, helped 80 percent of the population of the New Orleans area evacuate before Katrina made landfall on August 29th—one of the highest rates ever for a hurricane. But more than 100,000 people didnít escape the city boundaries—mostly citizens without cars. Thatís because there werenít enough buses available in time, a problem for which disaster preparedness planners hadnít apparently accounted.

Beriwal says, in her defense, that the Pam Plan had never been fully implemented—that it was just the first version and that they had not yet addressed critical areas of response such as security and communication. Critics say that even the parts of the Pam Plan that were used to didnít hold up to the chaos after the storm. For Beriwal the marathoner, time had run out.