The mass evacuation of New Orleans in the days preceding Hurricane Gustav tested the lessons learned after Katrina. The response to Gustav should be incorporated into the corporate memory of emergency responders everywhere.
While America breathed a collective sigh of relief after the real dangers of Hurricane Gustav passed it by, C Ray Nagin, Mayor of New Orleans, was urging caution over the near-miss, warning the 200,000 residents of his city and two million people from surrounding locations not to think about returning home for at least another day. New Orleans has emerged from the 'Storm of the Century' relatively unscathed and consequently so has the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and the Louisiana government – all of whom were so heavily criticised following the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
When analysing the mass evacuation of New Orleans and the Louisiana Coast – the largest exodus in the state’s history – there are three angles to consider. Was it:
• A huge case of crying wolf
• The best opportunity for an emergency exercise the city's officials are ever likely to be handed
• A smoothly operated, well-run response that proves the lessons identified in 2005 have been taken on board, implemented and learned?
Hurricane Gustav in New Orleans was a mixture of all these narratives. Three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, the threatened arrival of Gustav has offered a timely opportunity to test the emergency plans and procedures that have been put in place since 2005 at a time when everyone – officials, emergency responders and the public – is still inclined to take them seriously. When the order to evacuate New Orleans was given late on Saturday 30 August, it was heeded by the vast majority of residents. Learning from Katrina, a more hard-line approach was taken towards those who ignored the warnings in 2005: Mayor Nagin made it clear that the city would not offer emergency aid to those who chose to stay behind. As a result, only 10,000 did – a fraction of the number from 2005. Whilst this has been described as ‘efforts of local politicians to terrify residents into leaving’, the fact remains that it worked.
Of course, those who stayed behind in 2005 did not only do so out of choice. For many, evacuation was either impossible or seen as the lesser of the risks, and it is perhaps on this issue that the most improvement has been made.
The handling of the 2008 evacuation is a testament to the idea that the failures of the response to Hurricane Katrina have been read and absorbed. As was made clear in the post-Katrina report ‘Transport Disadvantaged Populations: Actions Needed To Clarify Responsibilities and Increase Preparedness for Evacuations’, a major failing in 2005 was the incorrect assumptions that (a) most residents could self-evacuate by driving themselves out of the city and that (b) residents who did not own their own cars simply needed public transport to be available.
While even the first of these assumptions was less robust than expected, it was the second that proved to be the emergency planners’ biggest downfall. For the vast majority of residents who did not own their own vehicle, the reason was not (only) poverty, but also disability, illness or infirmity that made it impossible for them to walk the distances required to reach coach and train stations and equally impossible for them to make long journeys on such transport without specialised care or medical equipment. Concern over the health facilities that would be available at their destinations added to their reluctance to leave. Others would not leave their pets behind. This time, more than 30,000 public transport places were provided with special provisions made for the evacuation of the elderly and disabled, who could call for specialists to collect them if they were unable to get to one of the seventeen designated pick-up sites. Provisions were also made for the transportation and shelter of animals.
There was a strong effort to show that the nation was on top of the situation and, more to the point, that it cared. Michael Chertoff, Director of the Department of Homeland Security, travelled to Louisiana to observe proceedings on Sunday 31 August. An additional 16,000 National Guardsmen from neighbouring states were drafted into the city to support Louisiana's complement of 7,000, to encourage and hasten the evacuation, enforce curfews and to offer reassurance against looting, which was another major cause of reluctance to evacuate in 2005. The Red Cross also deployed an additional 3,000 volunteers – many of whom were experienced veterans of the previous flood.
In the end, of course, Hurricane Gustav did not hit New Orleans head-on, having lost much of its momentum by the time it reached the United States. The levees held against the rain that did fall, and in a few days the majority of residents will move back to their homes, no doubt grateful that they have not had to relive the experience of three years ago. The past week has been nothing more serious than an opportunity to put the lessons learned from 2005 into practice and to prove, thankfully, that they work. As of Tuesday 2 September, there were reports of just eight storm-related deaths, as opposed to the 1,800 suffered in 2005.
In some ways, Hurricane Gustav was a fortunate occurrence. Coming just three years after Katrina, when the damage wreaked is still fresh in everyone's minds, its threatened arrival ensured that all parties took its approach seriously. Residents listened to the calls to evacuate. The authorities ensured that the resources available and support offered were sufficient for them to be able to do so. Thanks to Katrina, there were evacuation plans in place, and those plans were robust. They also reflected, exactly, the needs of the public – something which may never be true from planning assumptions alone. How different it might have been had Gustav loomed large on another city, in whose collective memory there was nothing to remind them of the dangers it could pose, or if it had come not three but thirty years later, when that memory had faded such than no-one really took the threat seriously any more.
The important issue now is to give as much time to analysing, refining and updating the plans that were in place this time as was given to the same exercise following Katrina. There may be no sense of outrage now, no fist-waving that ‘something must be done’ and yet in its own way, Hurricane Gustav was as important an event in the history of emergency planning and response as was Katrina itself.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI