As New Orleans flooded during Hurricane Katrina, the horror of seeing a famous city inundated was overshadowed by a greater shock: Tens of thousands of its citizens — many poor or infirm — had been left behind to fend for themselves. For days they were stranded on rooftops and bridges or trapped in hospitals in soaring heat without water and food.
Hundreds of school buses reserved for evacuation duty stood flooded in parking lots. A train offered for evacuation left the station empty. Thirty-seven nursing homes packed with the elderly did not evacuate. Warned a year earlier that they might have to move 100,000 residents without vehicles, emergency officials didn’t come close. Many died.
A watching world wondered how a country with the technological expertise to put men on the moon and drop bombs inside living rooms from 50,000 feet could be so inept or callous.
Ten years later, sweeping post-Katrina reforms fortunately have come to evacuation planning and support.
Today when a hurricane turns toward the Louisiana coast, it kicks off a comprehensive $2.5-million-per day evacuation system designed to move up to 46,000 residents who lack transportation from New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. It will use as many a 700 chartered highway coaches as well as airliners. And yes, pets are included in the plan.
“Up until after Katrina, we did not have a plan in place that took into account basic respect for human life and human dignity,” said David Morris, head of Evacuteer, a volunteer group that will help move residents to evacuation buses.
“That is what we have now.”
Much of the post-Katrina effort centered on fixing the sometimes deadly holes in preparedness that Katrina made obvious. This includes pre-storm identification of special-needs citizens such as the disabled and elderly; arranging transportation for evacuees from neighborhoods to a central evacuation point; and ensuring hospitals and nursing homes have flood-proof backup power generators.
NO MORE LAST RESORT
Perhaps most importantly: Making certain residents understand evacuation is their best protection because there are no longer “shelters of last resort” inside the city.
“Before Katrina, part of the plan was to use the Superdome as a shelter of last resort, which is why so many people were there when the roof was torn up,” said Aaron Miller, deputy director of the city’s office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “We understand now the only real safety is in evacuation.”
Miller conceded the so-called “mandatory evacuation orders” do not grant agencies the authority to forcefully remove citizens from the city. But, he said, it does mean this: “If you decide to stay, you’re on your own. If you get into any trouble, don’t expect anyone to come rescue you.”
He is confident capping the number of residents in need of at 30,000 is enough, even though current population statistics indicate there could be many more without transportation. According to the U.S. Census 2013 American Community Survey 1-year Estimate, 48,000 residents in the city lack vehicles.
But Miller said past experience has shown 30,000 is more than adequate. Only 21,000 had to be moved during Hurricane Gustav in 2008, he said. Although the city’s population is about 70,000 larger today, Miller said Gustav showed many of those without cars typically find rides.
“Family members help family, and friends help friends. People tend to find another way rather than end up at an evacuation center,” he said. “We’re confident this will be enough.”
The state has plans for enough buses to move 8,000 residents each from the east and west banks of Jefferson Parish.
Getting all those people from their homes to buses, vans and planes will depend on a carefully choreographed production involving local, state and federal agencies as well as their subcontractors and volunteers. Their goal is to clear the city in 30 hours from their first call to action.
HOW IT’S SUPPOSED TO WORK
Evacuation planning never really stops.
“That’s one of the biggest changes since Katrina: We do planning and preparation year-round,” said Charlotte Parent, director of New Orleans Health Department. “The idea is to make preparation for disaster part of the culture in this city. No matter what we’re talking to people about – it could be pre-natal care – we’ll also talk to them about preparedness for storm and evacuation.”
Agencies and nonprofits such as Evacuteer conduct year-round education programs with schools and community organizations across the city..
“We have everything printed in Spanish and Vietnamese as well as English,” Miller said.
Outreach campaigns are also conducted to locate and register residents with special needs, such as medically disabled and elderly.Each year residents on the Special Needs Registry receive postcards on their birthdays asking them to contact the Health Department with any changes in their health status or contact information, officials said. The city Health Department also coordinates with the state Department of Health and Hospitals to remove any deceased residents from the registry.
The schedule of an evacuation is pegged to the estimates by the National Hurricane Center of the hours before a storm would make landfall on the Louisiana coast. The plan has three major triggers.
144 hours out (6 days)
Parish and state emergency preparedness offices begin notifying agencies involved in evacuations to be on standby. Skip Breeden, emergency coordinator at the state Department of Transportation and Development says that means they must consider canceling vacation plans and the like.
102 hours out (A little more than 4 days)
Breeden orders the 700 highway coaches Louisiana has under contract to head for the New Orleans area. Four days of lead-time is required because the buses come from companies located as far away as Illinois. The state and city also begin to exercise contracts made with vans and ambulances needed to transport special-care residents.
The vehicles will assemble at Zephyr Field in Metairie until needed.
54 hours out (a little more than 2 days)
If the metro area remains in the predicted landfall area of a severe storm, a mandatory-evacuation order would be issued by the mayor of New Orleans and top officials in most coastal parishes. The goal is to complete the process in the next 24 hours because contra-flow on the highways — use of both sides of the interstate for outbound traffic — starts 30 hours before landfall.
Mayor Ray Nagin did not issue the evacuation order for Katrina until it was 20 hours out.
“We need to finish within that time frame so our volunteers and the local bus and van drivers can then take care of themselves and their families,” Miller said.
That was a major mistake during Katrina. Nagin said one reason the school buses intended for evacuation use sat idle was because the drivers left to move their families to safety.
In New Orleans, a fleet of Regional Transit Authority buses will begin making round-trip runs between Union Passenger Terminal and the 17 pickup points located across the city. Called “Evacuspots” they are marked by a metal sculpture of a stick figure. Those locations can be found at www.nola.gov/ready/evacuspots/
In Jefferson Parish, transit buses will pick up evacuees who assemble at stops on their normal routes. Jefferson West Bank residents will be taken to the Alario Center to board evacuation buses; east bankers will go to the Yenni Building.
Registered special-needs residents will be contacted by evacuation officials to determine what type of transportation is required.
“If they can’t get to their front porch, we’ll send out units from the Fire Department to go into their houses and assist them,” Parent said. “All this has been GIS mapped beforehand so we can coordinate and direct the help these people will need.”
At the staging area
Evacuees arriving at the staging areas must register with the state Department of Child and Family Services.
“Families will not be separated, and we will have a complete record of where each person is taken,” Breeden said.
Evacuees likely will not have a choice of where they are taken when they leave the area. The drivers will get their destination as shelters fill up, Miller said.
“We’ll start with the locations in north Louisiana, but we could end up moving people into Arkansas and Texas and other locations if that’s where we have room as the others fill up,” he said.
Evacuees will also be given the option of flying to a new location while seats on the chartered airliners remain.
PETS WON’T BE LEFT BEHIND
A notable change has come with pet care. During Katrina, many residents refused pre-storm evacuation and even post-storm rescue because they were not allowed to take their pets. In 2006, Congress made sure that would not happen again, passing the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standard (PETS) requiring the safety of pets be included in all local and state emergency plans.
In New Orleans, pets small enough to fit on their owners’ laps can travel with their owners from the Evacuspots to bus staging areas. Larger pets and their owners will be taken to the Union Passenger Terminal by the New Orleans Fire Department.
From the staging areas, all pets will be registered and driven in separate vehicles to pet shelters near their owners’ destination. The state budget includes keeping buses on hand to ferry pet owners from their evacuation centers to their pets’ locations for daily visits.
New Orleans evacuation managers will be coordinating the effort through another significant improvement over 2005.
The ninth floor of City Hall contains Emergency Operations Center, with backup emergency power and hurricane shutters for the glass windows.
“During Katrina that office was 1,500 square feet and had 15 to 20 seats,” Miller said. “Now we have 10,000 square feet and 90 seats – that’s how many agencies and organizations are now involved.
“It’s a big difference from Katrina.”