Changing the Hurricane Culture

  • Share
  • Read Later

James Mosley was both too poor and too proud to leave. His legs were paralyzed since childhood, but it meant the world to James, 52, to strut his independence: he insisted on living by himself in a small, green cinderblock house in the working-class section of Biloxi, Miss., called Point Cadet. And whenever hurricanes approached the Gulf Coast, James adamantly refused suggestions that, given his wheelchair-bound vulnerability, he should evacuate. Says his brother Robert, "He had a big, brave heart."

Brave enough to confront Hurricane Katrina. Like most in Point Cadet's enclave of lower-income blacks, Hispanics and Vietnamese a stone's throw from Biloxi's beachfront hotels and casinos, James had neither a car nor much access to bus transportation to leave the weekend Katrina hit. What he did have is what's known in this part of the country as catastrophe cowboy syndrome: a cavalier attitude shared among so many on the Gulf Coast that they can stand up to, and ride out, threats like major hurricanes. So when Katrina's 25-foot storm surge slammed into Point Cadet's rising flood waters on the morning of August 29, it swept James' body to the north—"twisted and folded up like some raggedy doll," says a friend, Fred Smith—and two days his drowned corpse was found 100 yards away, lodged with debris in a wire fence.

This casual attitude toward danger carries a high price, both in lives and money, and it's one that many in the Gulf Coast are beginning to question. People are asking whether taxpayers should have to bear the costs of rescuing those who ignore clearly noted threats. They are not talking about the tens of thousands of people who are unable to evacuate places like New Orleans or Biloxi because they lack transportation, but the others who had the option to leave but chose to stay.

This catastrophe cowboy mentality has afflicted many government officials in the Gulf Coast as well, from local mayors to federal bureaucrats, who too often seem to produce the kind of less than effective evacuation plans we saw before Katrina. Granted, both residents and officials were working under a tight schedule before Katrina gained Category 4 strength and made landfall between Biloxi and New Orleans. And there is only so much people can do to prepare for a storm of Katrina's millennial magnitude. But there's a growing concern that as our hurricanes increase in ferocity, as scientists are warning, government officials aren't taking the threat seriously enough.

In the end, what we need is to stop thinking of things like evacuation and storm shutters as recommended options and more as mandatory responsibility. It's like seat belts, one local official told me. They used to be optional, but now wearing them is the law. Already some communities are changing their thinking about this; some Florida cities now charge people who surf during hurricanes the cost of their rescue if they get in trouble.

Communities usually don't come to these conclusions until after the big disaster hits - as was the case with Miami and South Florida, where I live, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Today, when a major storm approaches Miami, the buses are out and the shutters are up—I put mine up twice last summer for hurricanes I knew probably weren't even going to strike. I saw little evidence of that preparedness along the Gulf coast; few houses had strongly-shuttered windows, and evacuation busses, according to residents, were in short supply. "It's just the New Orleans mentality," one Orleanian, who had evacuated, told me this week as he returned into the deserted city to survey its annihilation, "to think they can ride out anything. It's almost like a challenge—like if they hear of the seediest bar, they want to go to it."

South Floridians, especially the hardy, beach-bum individualists in places like the Keys—like Lionel Barrymore's defiant character in the hurricane classic Key Largo, who like James Mosley was wheelchair-bound—used to share that cultural machismo. But when a storm like Katrina moves in these days, people in the Keys, even the poor, are usually seen moving out. It may not look cowboy brave—but it's citizen smart.