New Orleans has once again dodged its doomsday bullet.
While Hurricane Katrina did plenty of damage, the city was spared a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane. As CNN and The Weather Channel have endlessly reported over the last couple of days, the city is exquisitely vulnerable to major storms, because it sits some eight feet below sea level, and because it is in the flood path of three major bodies of water: the Mississippi River, the 400,000 acre Lake Pontchartrain, and of course, the Gulf of Mexico itself.
As it happens, I was in town the last time it looked like "the big one" was on the way. The night I arrived in town last September, Hurricane Ivan, which had been tracking up the east coast of Florida, had changed course. It was in the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, a swirling bruise of purple, red and yellow on weather maps directly south of the city. As Hurricane Katrina was last night, the night before it arrived, Hurricane Ivan was also at Category 5 status.
The next morning, as a brisk and steady hot wind chased wispy clouds northward, city officials mobilized. Schools closed, sand bags were distributed –and as I sat in my hotel room, awaiting my flight out, I had a chance to listen to a most remarkable press conference.
The mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, and the president of Jefferson Parish, Aaron Broussard, repeatedly implored residents to flee northward and westward. "We don’t know whether this storm is going to punch us in the mouth, or kick us in the knee, but either way, it’s gonna hurt", said Broussard. Other parish and city officials issued dire warnings. "Don’t just think you can sit on your sofa and watch your soap operas. Don’t think that because you rode out Betsy, you can ride this one out. This one’s going to be much worse."
The mayor said that the city of New Orleans was under a voluntary evacuation order. But why not a mandatory evacuation order, given that a direct hit from a category five hurricane would have led to total destruction of the city, and the loss of tens of thousands of lives, according to Ivor van Heerden, director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes at Louisiana State University? Because we have at least 100,000 residents in New Orleans without cars, and we have no way to get them out, Mayor Nagin explained.
Although New Orlean’s emergency guide for citizens says that during a recommended evacuation, local transportation will be mobilized to assist persons who lack transportation, and bus routes and locations of staging areas for those needing transportation to shelters in or out of the Parish, will be announced via radio and television– nothing actually materialized in that moment of peril from Ivan. The city and the parish lacked the resources to make it happen. Instead, the Mayor put out a call for friends and neighbors to give people without transportation a ride out of town.
So it came down to this: if you are without an automobile in the Big Easy –which is essentially synonymous with living in poverty and you can’t hitch a ride, there are no provisions for your safety in the event of a disaster.
After the tsunami last December, the world’s attention focused, however briefly, on the disproportionate suffering of people who live in poverty in the wake of a natural disaster. But while we were rightly concerned about the situation on foreign shores, we failed to notice that the problem wasn’t simply international: people who live in poverty in the United States are in similar straights when a disaster strikes. For all the attention to, and investment in, homeland security in the past four years, in most cities, counties, and states, there is simply no plan to bring people out of natural or human-made danger who lack transportation.
This is not a small number of people that would be left to twist. Census figures show that 10.2 million American households are without an automobile many reside in major metropolitan areas most at risk for terror attacks, like New York and Washington DC, and millions more are also in states that are in constant peril from the churning tropics: 1.6 million households in Louisiana have no vehicle available to them, which would total at least 4 million people, 1.7 million households have no vehicle in Alabama the state that actually bore the brunt of Ivan’s fury last September. (Click on the map at left to see the percentage of households without vehicles –the darker the green, the higher the percentage of households without cars.)
So while today, while Hurricane Katrina howled, 10,000 people found shelter in the city’s Superdome (whose roof blew off in parts during Category 3 winds today), there were thousands of people who didn’t evacuate at all. My bet is because they couldn’t. Why isn’t there more discussion, given our "heightened state of awareness", about the lack of evacuation plans for people without vehicles?