Call it the Texas Two-step: On the one hand you had Gov. Greg Abbott urging mass evacuation ahead of Hurricane Harvey. The mixed message from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner: not so fast. Meanwhile, the Cassandra Prize for premonitory vigilance had already been awarded to Rockport Mayor pro tem Patrick Rios, who urged any constituents who insisted on riding out the storm to write their names on their flesh with Sharpie pens so the coroner could identify their corpses.
One oddity of the run-up to the disaster was seeing the climate-change skeptic, Abbott, whip state residents toward panic in the face of a superstorm that conforms rather nicely with just what climate scientists have been warning about. Mayor Turner’s more cautious approach was rooted in memories of evacuation fiascos past, such as the bus fire that killed 24 nursing home residents fleeing Houston ahead of Hurricane Rita in 2005.
Ah, yes. That old hurricane conundrum: whether to flee or freeze — evacuate or shelter in place. It has special resonance here in New Orleans, of course.
In the old days — before the Interstate system cut through swamps and bridged rivers and lakes to reconnect the island of New Orleans to the U.S. mainland, it was a much simpler issue. The city really couldn’t be evacuated, so don’t get worked up about it. Just fill the bathtub with drinkable water and keep a lantern handy, maybe an ax. That’s how we lulled ourselves into stoic immobility.
And anyway, hurricane parties were a municipal tradition and a lot of fun. Tune in Nash Roberts on the transistor radio. Haul the grill out to the curb and fry up whatever chicken and sausage you could lay your hands on. After all, it was just going to go bad when the electricity failed and the refrigerator went dead. If you had money and frail dependents to worry about, there was the tradition called “vertical evacuation” — renting a room in a downtown hotel.
Hurricane parties and vertical evacuation were still flourishing traditions when Hurricane Katrina struck, a fiasco that incentivized many of us to rethink the idea of riding out storms. One revisionist was federal prisoner C. Ray Nagin, in those days our mayor.
Nagin, feckless throughout Katrina and the recovery — in part, it seems, because he was so busy feathering his nest with grift and graft — had called for a voluntary evacuation two days before Katrina struck. By the next morning, a Sunday, he was standing alongside Gov. Kathleen Blanco who had come to New Orleans to exhort residents (and the mayor) to a more vigorous response. “Pack and pray,” she urged, accepting that churchgoers might want to tarry a moment in their places of worship before beating it out of town.
Louisiana law contains no provision for mandatory evacuation. Even the governor can’t order people to abandon their homes. But this was as close to it as the state’s top executive could get. It was also the first time in Louisiana history that a governor had come to New Orleans in the dark hours that precede a rendezvous with predicted catastrophe.
Blanco’s anxiety turned out to be well-founded. The death toll from Harvey rose to 10 on Monday, hardly a patch on Katrina’s 1,800 fatalities.
Three years after Katrina, almost to the day, Nagin — still at large and serving as mayor— appeared to have learned his lesson. With the Gulf swirling in an ominously circular pattern, he declared Hurricane Gustav the “storm of the century” and beseeched New Orleanians to flee.
Many did, only to see the hurricane quickly fizzle. It was a reminder that meteorology is an imperfect science. And that evacuation is no bed of roses, especially if you make it to a shelter set up in the LSU Agricultural Center facility in Alexandria, only to discover that inadequate electrical service means no showers and no flushable toilets. Adding to growing dissent and vows among us never again to take an evacuation “order” seriously, Nagin commanded state troopers and the National Guard to hold back evacuees who wanted to return. It was a couple of days before barriers came down and the disgruntled got home. Which they did, in a huff.
For reasons better appreciated at the time, the National Guard had also blocked returnees for a couple of weeks after Katrina, at least partly for fear of renewed looting. Thus, several days after the hurricane, your correspondent found himself plying side roads and back alleys in order to sneak around Guardsmen posted across the length and breadth of a ravaged city. I had not come to loot, though I was curious to see if there was anything left in my home worth taking. (It was intact.) But defying the law yielded one big dividend. In the freezer I found a bag of scallops well on their way to putrefaction. In a few days they would have turned my Frigidaire into yet another one of the junked and reeking appliances that became curbside icons of Katrina.
And so here we are, still drying out from the Aug. 5 flooding of New Orleans while contemplating the possibility that Harvey may veer back into Louisiana with rainfall that yet again overwhelms our still broken pumping system. Who knows? As hurricanes go, Harvey has been a quirky one. The sudden abatement of the winds upon landfall was as unexpected as the rainfall levels associated with a storm that was “unprecedented … unknown & beyond anything experienced,” to borrow from a National Weather Service advisory.
Mayor Landrieu did not order an evacuation, but schools were closed and New Orleanians were encouraged to sit home Tuesday. We could do worse than spend some of the day contemplating our options next time a really big storm threatens. Take flight? Sit tight?
The lesson seems clear to me, precisely because so much about the weather and the vulnerability of Gulf cities is not clear: If you can get out of Dodge ahead of a major hurricane — and don’t — you’re a fool. Fond memories of a hurricane party would be no compensation for the misery experienced by Houstonians who perched on their rooftops waiting for helicopters — just like we did with Katrina.
Clearly Texas officials need to bone up on ways to better coordinate evacuation messaging ahead of onrushing storms. But there’s nothing to discuss about the message itself. It should be ingrained in every one of us who risks living anywhere near the Gulf Coast in an age of eerily worsening weather. When the Big One is roiling the Gulf, figure out a place to go and a way to get there. Oh, and don’t forget to empty the refrigerator.
Many’s the storm that, like Gustav, will peter out and leave us wondering why we got so het up. We should be so lucky every time. But we won’t be. Climate change has politicized our elected leadership and rendered its counsel unreliable. And nature itself has begun to mock our powers of prognostication. Bear in mind that the worst recent disaster in New Orleans was the unimaginable rainfall associated with a storm that wasn’t even named.
We’re on our own, folks. And amid a climate now changing for whatever reason you wish to believe, denizens of the Gulf Coast had better be prepared for the worst.
Jed Horne, opinion editor of The Lens, is the author of “Breach of Faith, Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City (Random House, 2006, 2008) which NPR declared “the best of the Katrina books.”
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.