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No Wheels

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.

Novehiclesmap_3This 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?

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12 thoughts on “No Wheels

  1. Two thoughts – 1. Wheels may not help anyone caught in the big earthquake in CA when it hits. I lived there for decades and always assumed that I’d have to strap on a backpack and hike out of L.A. if I were there when the “Big One” hit. And 2. The elephant standing in the middle of the living room that nobody is talking about regarding all these weather disasters is “Why are they suddenly happening so much more frequently and voilently?” Of course, many think the answer is global warming. Right or wrong, if these hurricanes keep increasing in frequency and strength, New Orleans and other cities will be destroyed and rebuilt a number of times and then finally abandoned. Meanwhile, a huge peat bog the size of Germany and France, nextdoor to Siberia, frozen for hundreds of thousands of years is now thawing out, and scientists in that region have issued a global alert warning that when that bog becomes active global warming will increase exponentially. — Kevin

  2. One thing I’m unclear on in all of this news coverage is – in the CURRENT situation, 80% of the city is flooded, two levees have been breached, part of the roof came off the Superdome, and both airports are under water. How is this “dodging” the storm? I haven’t seen anyone make clear to me how much worse the situation could have been than it is now, with specifics, rather than just bandying about tasty but unhelpful phrases like “complete devastation.”

  3. Okay, so things are pretty damned bad in New Orleans right now. (I posted “No Wheels” before the levee holding back Lake Pontchartrain broke.)

    But, incredible as it sounds, the city really did fare better than it would have if it had been hit directly with a Category 5. In that case, the flooding would have been even worse, ongoing, and the water deeper –so even breaking through the top of the roof with the axe wouldn’t have gotten you out of the water. 90% of the structures in the city would have been destroyed, not just grievously damaged, and the death toll would have been in the tens of thousands. (I don’t think we’ll see a death toll that high.)

    You can read all about it in this special report by the New Orlean’s Times-Picayune, which they published after Hurricane Georges. http://www.nola.com/hurricane/index.ssf?/washingaway/thebigone_1.html

  4. Also, I don’t think that equipping every last household with a car is the way to solve the problem. Public transportation seems a much better way to evacuate people –the earthquake problem, though, is a thorny one.

    I liked Reason’s take on the issue this morning. http://www.reason.com/re/083005.shtml (See Great Moments in Journalism.)

  5. Yup. Alison is right. New Orleans actually did dodge this bullet substantially, and even so it is destroyed. But they’ll rebuild it at incredible cost, and then it will happen all over again, only maybe next time they won’t be so “lucky.” If we are not going to address the source of the problem, we should simply evacuate the gulf coast and all of Florida as well as other similarly threatened areas and return them to Mother Nature. She’ll take them anyway. Meanwhile, I’m all for luxury wheels for everyone, although eventually there may be no place to run to. Should I open my house to some of the million people made homeless and jobless by this disaster? Would they come to Pennsylvania?

  6. But isn’t that kind of like saying someone “dodged” a bullet, when it only hit him in the spine and paralyzed him from the waist down, rather than blowing his brains out?

    The best piece of hurricane reporting I’ve heard was someone on NPR referring to trees that have never withstood a hurricane as “naive trees”.

  7. Now the mayor of New Orleans says that thousands may be dead in that city alone. MSNBC reported last night that scores if not hundreds of poor families tried to evacuate the coast before Katrina hit, but it was the end of the month and they had not received their aid checks yet. They begged for $20 gas money from anybody who would listen, but no one would give it to them. Now many of those families are dead. Wouldn’t it have been easier and more cost effective (not to mention more humane) to provide fleets of free buses or hand out bushels of $20 bills prior to the storm than to attempt the nearly impossible rescues and total city evacuation and grisly body detail and count that now confronts authorities? Alison’s concern about wheels for everyone turns out to have been completely prescient and pregnant with more horror than I imagined when I first read it. Cities everywhere need evacuation plans that include free air, land, and water transportation to evacuate residents before, during and after natural or manmade disasters. Will that lesson be learned in the aftermath of this tragedy? We’ll see.

  8. It’s definitely the worst-case scenario in New Orleans now, no doubt about it. The city “dodged” the bullet with the hurricane, but was hit squarely by the shattered levees and the flooding that came afterwards. Many of the neighborhoods that are under water now, weren’t in the hours immediately after the storm passed.

    The other bullet that New Orleans didn’t dodge: the astonishing lack of foresight by local, state and federal officials. I’ve been looking at the models for big storms hitting New Orleans , and absolutely none of this was unexpected. There were days of warning that this particular storm was coming –after years of warning that a storm like this would certainly come eventually. So why are officials–like the head of FEMA–acting so surprised, saying that the scope of the storm was so huge that they’re unprepared. Their JOB is to be prepared.

    Forget getting the people out ahead of the storm for a moment. How could it be that there was no plan to get the basic food and water into the city,to restore basic communications, to care for the sick, after this calamity hit? How could it be that there was no plan to maintain or regain order? The people that I’ve seen interviewed on television say that there is no overall emergency plan that officals are working off of. It’s stunning to me that it’s taken days for the military to show up in any significant numbers. (Could it be because many of our national gaurd are in Iraq?)

    I heard a Louisiana rep on CNN today talking about how the state had been asking for federal funds to shore up the levees, reasoning that it would cost less to do that than it would to pay for the consequences of the levees breaking. We’re seeing the exacting price of our short-term economic policies and priorities today.

    Given Leontine’s analogy,about the bullet in the brain versus the bullet in the spine, I’m sure it’s occured to the powers-that-be that the situation would have been logistically easier if the city *had* been hit squarely by the hurricane. If you look at the footage from the small towns in Mississippi, the buildings in those towns have been reduced to twigs. If that had happened in New Orleans, the death toll would have been much higher, but there wouldn’t be these pesky one million American refugees wanting food, water and shelter.

    And one more question: what happens if another major natural disaster or terrorist attack happens in the next few days or weeks?

  9. I couldn’t agree more. If there had been a direct hit on New Orleans, those million refugees would be a million dead instead. Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Gulfport and other such communities were wiped away. There isn’t even any debris. Almost no one who was there could have survived.

    Not only was there no effective disaster response plan in a ticking time bomb city, but to make matters much worse, the current administration rebuffed repeated requests from New Orleans officials to provide aid to strengthen levies, and George Bush actually substantially reduced the funding for disaster preparedness in the gulf region.

    Yes, of course, part of the problem is that the appropriate national guard units are in Iraq. It’s awfully hard on those troops on the other side of the planet who want to be home rescuing their own friends and families, and don’t even know their fate.

    Babies have been evacuated to other states from New Orleans hospitals and their parents don’t know where they are. Hospital patients are dying by the hour as generators run out of fuel and oxygen supplies are depleted. Lawlessness rages and rescue boats and helicopters are shot and attacked by people in the streets. The Mayor of N.O. originally said, “Protect yourself and your home any way you can. We can’t help.” Then the line changed to, “We are abandoning the rescue mission to dedicate all forces to restoring law and order.” It’s senseless tragedy and chaos.

    Do L.A. and S.F. have adequate plans for the big earthquake? Do N.Y. and N.J. have effective plans to evacuate poor citizens in a disaster, and restore power, water, sewage and communication services, let alone provide food and fuel? Katrina may have been the siren scream wake up call that this nation is living in denial.

    It doesn’t help that I am trying to send 10% of all we have in the bank to the Red Cross, and their website won’t take my contribution. Meanwhile weather forecasters point out that we are still at the height of hurricane season and that conditions in the Caribbean will be perfect for more huge storms in the near future. I’ve had the same chilling thought as you, Alison — what if something else happens — anything else? Our military was already overstretched in foreign wars and police overtaxed by homeland security demands. Now a major American city must be evacuated completely for months, the Gulf Coast is destroyed, our oil infrastructure in seriously compromised, and society must absorb a million or more destitute refugees. The giant USA superpower looks impotent today and will seem virtually helpless if we pile one or two more emergencies or disasters on top of our current load. We are vulnerable. It’s time for new leadership with more foresight and vision and plain old common sense.

  10. I also heard today on CNN that Pres. Bush is asking his father and President Clinton to raise funds in the same way they did for the tsunami.
    That’s just the height of absurdity. We’re the richest country on EARTH, and we’re asking the rest of the world to help us?

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