Exclusive: Were the Warning Signs of Katrina Ignored?

September 12, 2005, 7:40 AM

Sept. 12, 2005 — -- Federal and state officials have blamed each other for the disastrous response in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. But the official disaster response plan obtained exclusively by ABC News shows that everyone was forewarned, in strikingly chilling detail, about what would happen in New Orleans.

The 113-page plan said that there could be "thousands of fatalities," "floating coffins," and that there would be "large quantities of hazardous waste" that "would result in airborne and waterborne contamination" if a large hurricane hit Louisiana and the levees broke in New Orleans. On Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, causing the levees to break in New Orleans a day later, submerging and devastating the city and leaving thousands of people stranded and waiting for help for days. Officials have predicted that the final death toll could be in the thousands.

Federal and state officials have blamed each other for the poor response in New Orleans and neighboring Gulf states. In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco have blamed the federal government, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for the slow response. Federal officials have said that initial evacuation and hurricane preparation plans were the responsibility of Louisiana and New Orleans authorities and blame those officials for not asking for the help of the federal government soon enough and for not being specific enough when they requested help.

However, the disaster plan shows that officials on all levels were aware of the potential damage a powerful hurricane like Katrina -- which was a Category 3 when it made landfall in New Orleans -- could inflict.

"What troubles me the most is the fact that they knew the potential impact, knew the potential loss of life, knew how many people would be stranded," said Jerry Hauer, a former emergency management official. "And they did not use every resource humanly possible to get people out of the city."

ABC News has learned that the disaster plan was sent to FEMA and Louisiana state officials this past January after a hurricane simulation in July 2004. In this simulation, a Category 3 hurricane named Pam slammed New Orleans with sustained winds of 120 mph. Water from Lake Pontchartrain poured over the levees and the entire city was quickly under water.

"The fact that the exercise predicted this kind of an outcome makes this response even more, just incompetent, at all levels of government" Hauer said.

Under the disaster plan, preparations for the storm should have begun at least three days before it made landfall. With Katrina, New Orleans ordered a mandatory evacuation 20 hours before the storm struck. FEMA officials were supposed to have critical resources in place before landfall.

Though city and state government authorities were primarily responsible for evacuating people, the disaster plan notes that Louisiana "had identified a shortage in resources required to evacuate and support shelters."

President Bush has said that he wants an investigation into the response to Hurricane Katrina. On Friday, FEMA Director Michael Brown, who has been criticized widely for lack of leadership in Katrina's aftermath, was relieved of daily duties overseeing relief on the ground in states affected.