Hurricane season starts today, and the city encourages all residents to have their own evacuation plan. But not everyone can get out of town on their own. That’s why New Orleans has developed a citywide assisted evacuation system. To run smoothly, a lot of agencies have to work together - and people have to know about it, too.
When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, at least 100,000 people stayed in New Orleans. Some didn’t have transportation; others were just used to staying for hurricanes. Brenda Lomax Brown was one of those people.
"I used to be on the B Team – I’ll be here when you leave, I’ll be here when you come back!" she laughs.
"I’m old school," Brenda says. "I never evacuated for a storm. Regardless how bad they say – it’s coming, it’s coming right at you, I wouldn’t leave, It always turned at the last minute, people stuck on the highway trying get back home-- I’m at home."
But Katrina was different. Brenda and her husband stayed, and ended up at the convention center with nothing but the clothes on their backs. She says they tried to walk home through knee-deep water, stepping over bodies along their way.
She says, from that experience, she knows now, when they say leave, leave.
"I moved off the b team – I guess I’m on the A Team – I can’t say – A.S.S. out!"
Brenda didn’t just make a plan for own family. She signed up with a group called Evacuteer, which recruits helpers to get people out of town safely.
New Orleans city assisted evacuation system is the largest of its kind in the country. It was created after Katrina, but hasn’t gotten much use since then - so the city planned a full-scale simulation to test the plan.
The mayor typically issues a mandatory evacuation for a category three storm, or higher. Next, people head to one of 17 “Evacuspots” around town -they’re those giant, metal stick figures that look like they’re hailing a cab. From there, buses take people to the Union Passenger Terminal, where they’re processed and bused to shelters- or the airport.
At the drill, volunteers were assigned roles to play, each with specific health issues or concerns. There were a lot of moving parts.
The city used the evacuation plan for the first and only time in 2008 during Hurricane Gustav. Director of New Orleans Homeland security Aaron Miller says that storm taught them two major lessons. One, was scale. In 2008, the system was ready for about 20k people. Now it’s set up for 35k.
The second thing, says Miller, was making sure that we pay particular attention to residents who have special medical needs.
To do this, researchers at The University of New Orleans Center for Hazards Assessment Response and Technology, or CHART, say the plan must move away from a ‘one size fits all approach. CHART surveyed those who used the system during Gustav. They found many were frustrated with the re-entry process - some felt they were brought back to the city too early - others, too late. Researchers at CHART say in a perfect world, the system would be so specialized, it could signal when it’s safe to come back, neighborhood by neighborhood. Miller says the city has not changed the re-entry plan since Gustav.
Evacuteer Director Kali Rapp Roy does her best to make sure those who need the system know about it. Her group visits clinics, neighborhood groups and shelters year round. But, she says, that might not be enough.
"We do count on word of mouth and the ripple effect because there isn’t a lot of money for advertising - there’s hardly any money in advertising on it,"
Rapp Roy is worried, too, that the data used to determine the locations of "Evacuspots" is outdated.
"We know we need more," she admits. "New Orleans East is lacking-- I mean you’ve got people that might be walking up to two miles."
Brenda Lomax Brown is doing her part to get the word out. She’s president of the Hollygrove Dixon Neighborhood Association.
"You don’t have to worry about where you gonna stay, or the money for the road trip for the gas," she tells her neighbors. "You don’t have those worries, someone else is going to worry about that for you. So it’s my job to try to inform as many people as I can."