Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 24, 2006

NISAC report predicted impact of Katrina

Filed under: Infrastructure Protection,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Christian Beckner on January 24, 2006

The Washington Post has an interesting story today about the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center’s (NISAC) reporting to the Administration on the potential impacts of Katrina in the very early hours of Monday, August 29, 2005:

In the 48 hours before Hurricane Katrina hit, the White House received detailed warnings about the storm’s likely impact, including eerily prescient predictions of breached levees, massive flooding, and major losses of life and property, documents show.

A 41-page assessment by the Department of Homeland Security’s National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC), was delivered by e-mail to the White House’s “situation room,” the nerve center where crises are handled, at 1:47 a.m. on Aug. 29, the day the storm hit, according to an e-mail cover sheet accompanying the document….

The documents shed new light on the extent on the administration’s foreknowledge about Katrina’s potential for unleashing epic destruction on New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities and towns. President Bush, in a televised interview three days after Katrina hit, suggested that the scale of the flooding in New Orleans was unexpected.

While this was probabilistic analysis, it still should have set off a lot more alarm bells. I’m curious to know what the distribution chain was for the report on 8/29 after NISAC sent it. This page on a University of California website provides a partial answer to this question:

The NISAC report was provided to the Homeland Security Operations Center for posting on the Homeland Security Information Network portal for local, state and regional assistance and consideration.

It’s also important to note that the key revelations in the WaPo piece are in the content of report: not its existence. Sandia, one of the two national labs where NISAC is run (Los Alamos is the other), wrote this article in its internal newsletter on September 16, 2005 that discussed the report and NISAC’s work in modeling Katrina:

NISAC began its work on the Saturday prior to Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast region. Sandia’s main goal is to look at flooding and infrastructure failures; LANL focuses on electricity systems.

“We help determine the long-range industrial consequences regardless of the cause,” says Kevin Stamber, a NISAC member.

The idea is to use the models to warn officials of potential problems before they happen. The team often has less than one day from the time they are notified by DOE or DHS to generate reports concerning an event’s potential effects on infrastructure.

Nancy Brodsky, the Fast Analysis and Simulation Team lead, says the reports are not made public but are given to DHS for analysis and planning. Reports are not issued to the public because they could be misrepresented.

Perhaps these reports could be misrepresented. But in my opinion, a worse outcome is that they’re not made available to the people on the frontline who could benefit from the warning. In the future, I think NISAC should err on the side of disclosure in the cases of natural disasters (but not their models of terrorist attacks). For example, why not release the NISAC avian flu study mentioned in this Wired story? It sounds like something that could be useful to officials in states, cities, and the private sector that are developing their avian flu contingency plans today.

Update (1/24): This Times-Picayune story adds more details about the report.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

January 24, 2006 @ 11:26 am

It is important to note that to the extent threats of flooding are disclosed on maps of the National Flood Insurance Program (42 U.S.C. Sections 4001 et. seq.)they reflect hydrologic data and mapping techniques not meterological data. Little if any use has been made historically in the NFIP mapping program of meterological data and methodologies. Levees are normal constructed to reflect hydrologic data (often developed by the Army COE which employees few meteorogists) thus levees for example are often constructed to protect against the so-called 500 year flood (actually the 2% chance of annual occurence flood) not a category 3 hurricane or category 5 hurricance standard which are meterologicall derived. The so-called 100 year flood (flood with a probability of a 1% annual occurence) was a political compromise for the original NFIP mapping program reflecting the annual spring runoff and the flood of record in the community. Maps never reflected local drainage issues such as water-courses with less than 800 cfs flows. NFIP maps do not disclose all flood hazards covered under the Standard Flood Insurance Policy, e.g. Definition A-2 (flooding from all sources)!

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » FY 07 DHS approps: the pork hunt

October 20, 2006 @ 3:27 pm

[…] Page 53: Sec. 511 of Title V of the bill requires that “Each federal agency and department with critical infrastructure responsibilities under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 7, or any successor to such directive, shall establish a formal relationship, including an agreement regarding information sharing, between the elements of such agency or department and the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center, through the Department.” The NISAC is a center at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico (the home state of Senate Appropriator Pete Domenici) that does simulation and modeling work on homeland security issues; the center gained notoriety following their report prior to Hurricane Katrina that accurately predicted its consequences (a report that I’d still like to see, btw.) The NISAC has done solid work, from every that I’ve heard, but this mandate for all federal agencies with CIP responsibilities to work with them seems overly aggressive, and feels like a strong-armed attempt to round up new work for the Center. […]

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