The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Worst Laid Plans

Experts, Katrina Survivors Lament Unimaginative Disaster Planning

Part Two of a Two Part Series

by Michelle Chen

Those closely observing and living through Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the Crescent City note that officials ignored even the inadequate plans in place – let alone sensible alternatives – leading to a compounded catastrophe.

The first part of this series, "Katrina Preparations, Response Saw Failure at ‘Every Level’" was published on September 9.

Sept. 16, 2005 – University of New Orleans student Elizabeth Levy was just settling into her new apartment and not thinking much about the weather when her landlord appeared at her door and asked what she planned to do about the hurricane.

It was August 28, and Mayor Ray Nagin had just issued a mandatory evacuation order, with Hurricane Katrina about one day away.

Hours later, Levy was trapped among a rush of cars aiming for the interstate. "We were stuck," she recalled. "For four hours we waited and wasted a half a tank of gas." Some vexed drivers abandoned their cars to walk out of the path of the storm. Levy pulled out of the gridlock and sought shelter at a local hospital where her mother worked as a nurse.

Had everything gone according to plan, before Katrina was even named, the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness would have implemented community-wide emergency trainings. During the evacuation, residents with cars would have exited the city in a smooth procession. The Regional Transit Authority would have provided transportation for the sick, weak and carless.

Though residents were "encouraged to stay with friends or relatives in non-threatened areas," had plans been implemented, those who lacked or failed to access such resources could have ridden out the storm in "a comprehensive system of accessible shelters of adequate size."

But things did not go according to plan due variously to lack of implementation and sheer inadequacy.

When floodwater rushed into the city through broken levees, any remaining evacuation and shelter plans dissolved. Those who were too poor, too weak, too brave or simply not fortunate enough to escape found themselves trapped.

Within hours of Nagin’s mandatory evacuation order, the governor’s office terminated "contraflow" traffic procedures, which had reversed inbound lanes to prevent congestion, stating that "traffic conditions are improving" in the area.

Public transportation was not provided for the tens of thousands without means to leave on their own.

The next day, the evacuation window slammed shut. "The only way to ensure your safety at this point," read a Louisiana State Police public service announcement, "is to stay in place."

Officials told the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people still in the city that the only alternative to staying home was to go to the Superdome, the official last-resort shelter, with advice from the Mayor to bring their own food, leave their weapons at home and be prepared for discomfort.

When floodwater rushed into the city through broken levees, any remaining evacuation and shelter plans dissolved. Those who were too poor, too weak, too brave or simply not fortunate enough to escape found themselves trapped.

But according to some emergency preparedness experts, the city and state plans ultimately collapsed beneath the weight of systematic neglect by federal, state and local officials, rather than much-anticipated storm surge.

The Mayor’s evacuation plan acknowledged that about 100,000 residents did "not have means of personal transportation," and that developing adequate shelter provisions was "an ongoing project."

In southeast Arizona, the Extension worked with local residents and emergency responders on a strategy that safely moved some 30,000 rural residents out of the path of a major disaster in three hours.

The state of Louisiana’s 45-page counterpart evacuation and shelter blueprint assumed that a severe hurricane would produce more than 400,000 evacuees, but that "not always 100 percent of the vulnerable population" would evacuate.

Such caveats, say some experts, had deadly consequences for a city where over 8,000 households lack telephone service and nearly 30 percent of residents live in poverty.

Robert Wheelersburg, anthropology professor at Elizabethtown College who has worked with FEMA’s response and recovery operations as an army major, told The NewStandard that by overlooking the worst-case scenarios when devising hurricane preparedness measures, "the governments – all three levels – took a gamble… and a lot of people lost on it."

The Holdouts

Mass evacuation is a thorny social phenomenon: Some residents want to leave but cannot and often seek local shelter instead; others refuse to abandon their homes.

Russell Dynes, a sociologist with the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, explained that in deciding when and whether to leave, "people assess their own risk, make their own judgments."

"If I’m living in New Orleans," Dynes said, "and somebody tells me to go to the Superdome, I’d be damned reluctant to go there."

That was Alobar Greywalker’s reasoning on August 28. A diabetic who does not own a car, he decided to stay in his fourth-floor French Quarter apartment, which had survived previous hurricanes.

"They were offering no way to get out before the storm – not in the way of any kind of transportation," he recalled. "They were offering shelters. And I thought my shelter was just as good as theirs, if not better."

The Superdome basically had no contingency plan of its own.

But by August 30, the day after the storm, food was running low. Greywalker headed for the city’s Convention Center; a friend had informed him people were gathering there to wait for buses out of the city. At that point, desperate crowds were spilling out of the hot, filthy complex, so he waited a few blocks down the street.

When no bus came, Greywalker tried to return to his apartment, he said, but a uniformed officer on patrol prevented him from leaving the Convention Center area. Soon, he and other would-be evacuees resorted to scrounging for food in abandoned shops.

Occasionally, he sighted soldiers on trucks driving toward the center. "Every time we saw troops going down there, we said, ‘Oh goody, they’re going to secure the area,’" he recalled. "But then they drove out again. And that made us, well, pissed."

Head Start Could Have Saved Lives

Emergency preparedness experts say that planners missed opportunities to lay the groundwork for emergency response well in advance of Katrina’s landfall.

"How do we plan for people that don’t have the ability to get out of town?" That is the crucial question prompted by the New Orleans disaster experience, according to Stephen Campbell, a director of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, which assists with local disaster planning.

In southeast Arizona, the Extension worked with local residents and emergency responders on a strategy that safely moved some 30,000 rural residents out of the path of a major disaster in three hours. As in New Orleans, residents in Arizona had about three days to prepare for the disaster, the massive Rodeo-Chediski forest fire of 2002. But behind this effort were months of extensive planning and exercises, followed by community trainings. Two local school bus fleets were on standby during the evacuation to assist the sick, disabled, and others lacking private transportation.

Experts say that a better-integrated, grassroots planning process in New Orleans might have helped prevent families from being separated as they fled or were rescued.

Similar preparedness efforts helped Sutter County, California, which is also built amidst a levee system, evacuate tens of thousands of mostly urban residents during massive regional floods in 1997. Sutter’s continually upgraded response plan now encompasses an extensive database that tracks the evacuation needs of residents with special medical conditions.

Special needs patients in New Orleans, by contrast, had to make individual shelter arrangements through hotlines that were opened two days before the storm hit.

Campbell pointed out that even a sound evacuation plan must be supported by a shelter plan for those left behind. In New Orleans, he said, "there was no mechanism to support the displaced persons within the community." Had the city’s shelter plans included a partnership with major area hotels, he speculated, the situation at the overcrowded Superdome and Convention Center might have been less desperate.

On August 31, Governor Kathleen Blanco did in fact issue an executive order mandating that hotels and motels shelter certain evacuees – namely current guests who were "able to pay the nightly rates," or could guarantee that costs would be covered later on.

Wheelersburg said that city officials should have readied public transportation resources so that, once the people who could evacuate on their own did so, others could immediately access pre-deployed bus or rail services.

But days passed before the first major evacuations by public transportation occurred, orchestrated mainly by federal, not local officials. Earlier promises that school and city buses would be deployed apparently never materialized. According to recent inventory reports of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority and the Orleans Parish school district, New Orleans maintains a fleet of several hundred public and school buses.

Noting that as a refuge of last resort, the Superdome basically had no contingency plan of its own, Wheelersburg said, "some provision should have been made to transport the people from that facility" in case it was impacted by the storm. "You cannot take people without transportation and trap them within the disaster zone without some means to get them out."

The Most Vulnerable

Some of the city’s sickest and weakest residents relied on the public health system for shelter and evacuation, but they had a long road ahead of them. The designated "special needs shelters" in Alexandria and Monroe were hundreds of miles away.

Many special needs patients fleeing the storm wound up at a "last-resort" special-needs shelter set up at the Superdome. When the dome began to flood and electricity and communications systems broke down, health officials scrambled to coordinate ambulances and helicopters to move patients to other shelters.

Melissa Walker, spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Hospitals, told TNS that rescuers managed to evacuate hundreds of patients about a day after the floods began, but that the operation was basically a spontaneous one. She said that planners never expected to have to evacuate that shelter.

Failure from Top to Bottom

According to E. L. Quarantelli, a planning specialist with the Disaster Research Center, community-based planning is vital for officials and residents to delegate responsibilities and communicate effectively. "Too much planning tends to be from the top down, or ‘for’ people," he said, "instead of being from the bottom up, and with people."

This week, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that its database system for Katrina refugees has fielded over 2,700 reports of missing or "found" kids, and reunited families in about 700 cases. Countless more families are searching for relatives of all ages.

Disaster planning experts say that a better-integrated, grassroots planning process in New Orleans might have helped prevent families from being separated as they fled or were rescued.

Dynes said that the best method of keeping families together is to encourage and empower them to develop individual plans, like designating a central contact person to help estranged family members reconnect.

Some experts see the local breakdowns in the Katrina response as a reflection of more troubling undercurrents in the federal emergency response structure.

George Haddow, former deputy chief of staff at the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the 1990s, said that in the case of Katrina, Washington should have known early on that "there is no state or locality in this country that could sustain a storm like that and not be overwhelmed, and not need the help of the federal government in order to manage an effective response."

Despite FEMA’s announcement that it had pre-deployed response teams in the area, for days, reports of deplorable conditions streamed out of New Orleans. The first signs of major federal military relief came four days into the catastrophe on September 1.

Considering that federally mobilized vehicles emptied the two shelters by September 3, Haddow estimated that had federal authorities deployed immediately after the storm, tens of thousands of refugees at the Superdome and Convention Center could have been evacuated by mid-week.

On the administration’s delayed response, Haddow reflected, "I don’t know where their focus is.… But the results indicate to me that it wasn’t on the victims."

By the time Washington adjusted its focus, the scope of the crisis was all too clear to the thousands of refugees stranded in Katrina’s wake.

After five days of living on the street, Alobar Greywalker was finally herded onto a bus bound for an Arkansas air-force base. Now living at a friend’s house in Texas, he commented, "I’ve known for a long, long time that the government are idiots and don’t have the people’s best interest in mind. … This simply just reinforces that."

Elizabeth Levy weathered the storm at the hospital where her mother works, assisting staff members who struggled with dwindling supplies while awaiting government aid. On Wednesday, she finally complied with the Mayor’s orders, using her remaining half-tank of gas to evacuate New Orleans.

Looking back on the city where she grew up, now barely recognizable, she said, "I don’t understand how it somehow got forgotten."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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