New Orleans' Plan for the Next Hurricane: Leave

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Next time around, when a hurricane heads for New Orleans, there will be city transportation to evacuate residents — as well as their pets. The trains will help in the migration. The city is working with airlines to make sure tourists with tickets get a plane ride out. But residents who stay are on their own, says Mayor Ray Nagin. There will be no “shelter of last resort” for riding out the storm, no replay of the horrors that occurred after Hurricane Katrina at the Superdome or the Convention Center.

With the June 1 start of the 2006 hurricane season looming, Nagin and emergency officials outlined a broad plan on Tuesday to evacuate and secure the city if another major storm threatens. Citing the hard lessons learned after Hurricane Katrina, when residents and tourists were stranded in the city for nearly a week after the August 29 landfall, Nagin vowed to make better use of city and federal resources next time around. Along with mobilizing the city’s transit system to evacuate residents, he said the city had been working with the federal Department of Homeland Security to make sure Amtrak trains would be available for evacuations and that commercial airlines would remain in operation long enough to ferry out all visitors who had already purchased return tickets.

Pointedly, the emergency evacuation makes no allowances for shelter for those who opt not to evacuate. City officials do not want a repeat of the hellish conditions at the Superdome and the Convention Center, where thousands of people sought shelter after Katrina. The images and tales of people stranded in the shelters without lights, air conditioning or adequate food and water supplies have lingered long after the storm. “As I’ve stated before, there will be no shelter of last resort in the event of a major hurricane that’s coming our way,” Nagin said. “The Convention Center will be used only — only — as a staging point for bus evacuations, both pre-event and post-event.”

Instead, the plan calls for citizens to take more responsibility for their own safety. Terry Ebbert, New Orleans’ director of Homeland Security, said he expects no more than 10,000 people to fall into the “special needs” category — those with medical conditions or handicaps or who lack transportation of their own. And Nagin said the city’s responsibility for these residents would extend only to getting them on a bus out of town; from there, he said, the state would be responsible for setting up emergency shelters outside the areas vulnerable to flooding.

Hundreds of tourists in town for conventions and vacations were unable to leave the city after Katrina. With widespread power outages and street flooding in the French Quarter and Central Business District, hotels quickly ran out of food and had to help evacuate guests or, in many cases, turn them out onto streets where anarchy had all but replaced the rule of law. New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley said the city would request that 3,000 soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard be brought in as an evacuation commenced, both to prevent the widespread looting that happened after Katrina, and to assure evacuating residents that their homes and businesses wouldn’t fall victim to looting. Ebbert said the point was “to create an atmosphere in our city where it makes more sense for everybody to leave rather than stay."

Even though the levees that surround the city are being rebuilt to higher standards, Nagin said, the city would consider mandatory evacuations for “anything above a category 2” storm and “definitely for a category 3.” Katrina was a category 3 hurricane when it made landfall. Nagin said the city would not forcibly remove residents from their homes, but that police would enforce a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the aftermath of a hurricane. To encourage more people to evacuate, the emergency plan makes provisions to help evacuate pets on the same buses used to evacuate residents, provided their owners have cages for them. Many people stayed behind during Katrina because they refused to abandon their pets.

In Texas, meanwhile, Governor Rick Perry wasn't taking any chances after the traffic nightmares that the state suffered during Hurricane Rita last year. This week he launched a four-day hurricane preparedness exercise — the largest ever in the state — and announced an expansion of the 211 evacuation hotline to help coastal residents without transportation or with special needs. Emergency responders are playing out preparations for a category 5 storm, with about 100 cities and counties participating. During the exercise, which lasts until Friday, officials in the five hurricane evacuation zones will practice responding to an evacuation call. Part of the plan includes a team to coordinate fuel distribution along evacuation routes. “With systems to better assist Texans with special needs, new traffic management and fuel plans, and private sector partners to oversee the distribution of food, water, ice and fuel," Perry said, "I believe Texas is a model in preparedness for other states."