Hurricane season ended on November 30. On that date, hurricane evacuations ended, as well. By early November, I had evacuated to Baton Rouge for hurricanes Laura, Marco, Delta, Sally, Beta, and Zeta.
My evacuation usually began with an urgent phone call from a sibling, who would contact me after seeing a solid line drawing a bead on New Orleans while watching the Weather Channel, a weather report on the national news, or the Baton Rouge weather forecast. That bead is part of an unerring path over the hot waters of the south-central Gulf of Mexico, up through Grand Isle or the mouth of the Mississippi River.
This is what I have learned, as a “serial evacuee.” Take cash, clothing for the next 2-3 days, an insulated cooler for any perishable food, insurance policies, toiletries, your laptop, your cell phone and their chargers, a book or two to read, and anything else that will keep you occupied and away from TV weather reports and the ever-changing hurricane tracks. But before you leave, turn down your freezer and refrigerator to the lowest temperature settings. Turn off the lights, and, of course, gas up your vehicle. Let your evacuation host know you’re coming, so that they’re prepared for your arrival.
By the time the track is 48 hours out, and ready to set its sights on the metro New Orleans area, I have packed a suitcase with several changes of clothes, and a cooler full of perishable food, and, with my car’s tank is filled with gas, I head for Baton Rouge, via Airline Highway, so that I can stay with family members.
If the hurricane’s target shifts from the metro New Orleans area to, for example, to the Mississippi/Alabama line, I call my condo’s management or a fellow resident to find out if the power is on or off. When it’s all clear, I pack up my car and head back to New Orleans.
Evacuating, when told by city officials to shelter in place, is a “better safe than sorry” option, especially when the storm track’s solid line shifts from the center of the cone of uncertainty to one of the edges or when the track moves. In the cases of Hurricanes Laura and Delta, their origins in the southwestern Gulf tracked east, and included the entire coast of Louisiana. Both storms made landfall in Lake Charles and caused few major problems in metro New Orleans. Hurricane Sally started near Florida as a tropical storm and made landfall in Gulf Shores, Alabama, as a Category 2 storm. Bracing for four major hurricanes in one season has resulted in “storm fatigue.”
Leaving, only to learn that the hurricane has gone east or west of New Orleans, has left me wondering if I should have stayed home and ridden out the storms. But my condo management’s notices remind me that staying in the building carries risks. A power outage might last three days. Only one elevator would be working. Flooding and debris would block streets and access to emergency healthcare providers. We would assume the risks of being without power; not having access to transportation; not getting timely medical care; or enduring a flood, even though my condo’s management puts an inflatable barrier at the driveway to keep floodwaters out.
Voluntarily evacuating for storms every few weeks is exhausting. You exchange a series of phone calls and text messages with family members; monitor the local weather reports; pull out a suitcase; gather what you need to take with you; load all of it into your car; drive to your destination; unload everything; and wait out the storm. Seventy-two hours later, you’re packing up your car and heading back home.
Evacuating four to five times in two months is exhausting for evacuees and their families. Our families are worried and anxious, with good reason, for our well-being. They are not convinced that sheltering in place is a good idea.
A change from shelter in place to mandatory evacuation is disconcerting, especially when a hurricane that is a Category 1 or 2 with its track going away from New Orleans becomes a Category 3 or 4 with a track that moves towards New Orleans. Mandatory evacuation means contraflow, heavy traffic, delays, the risk of a vehicle breakdown, and more than a little road rage and stress from other drivers who are also trying to leave. What’s worse is voluntarily evacuation feels like an exercise in futility when the hurricane’s track shifts away from one’s hometown. A few of these dry-run evacuations are enough to make would-be evacuees think about staying put, rolling the dice, and not evacuating during the next hurricane.
Wendy King is a retired, life-long resident of New Orleans.