Some had no place to go or no wheels to take them. The sick and the elderly waited helplessly. Thousands stayed for their pets or figured they’d just ride it out as they had before. In a pinch, there was always the Superdome.
Roxy Wright was too connected to get stuck like that.
Wright counts prominent musicians, judges and politicians in her orbit of family and friends, and for a time she attended Mass with former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. She was Blanco’s New Orleans office director when she tuned in to watch her boss stand before the TV cameras on Aug. 28, 2005, ghostly white, and plead for rapid flight.
“I know her like the back of my hand,” said Wright, now 78. “When I saw the look in her eyes, I said, ‘OK, Miles, let’s fuel the tank.’ ”
Yet Wright and her musician son didn’t leave. Headed for Birmingham, Alabama, they dropped by Lindy Boggs Medical Center in Mid-City to alert her husband, a patient there. A nurse told them the interstate was jammed and the hospital was a designated shelter. “Stay here,” the nurse urged.
So began a typically hellish Katrina odyssey: days trapped in a deathly, flooded hospital; rescue by boat, then helicopter. Shelter in Lafayette’s Cajundome. Nine months holed up in an alien place. For Wright, that place was Philadelphia, while her cats, Tiger and Dexter, remained in New Orleans.
“Concentration camp. The tower of Babel. Jews wandering in the desert for 40 years,” Wright said, reading from a 10-year-old journal she keeps in her Uptown bungalow, the raw impressions from her 16 hours among the overheated masses out on Veterans Memorial Boulevard, waiting for a bus. “Animal instincts. Destruction of the spirit.”
Such was the fear, chaos and bad decision-making that local and state officials and a legion of volunteers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars during the past decade in hopes of avoiding a repeat.
Tweaked and refined after Hurricane Gustav in 2008 and again after Isaac in 2012, the massive planning effort should guarantee safe exit and return for whoever needs it in the face of disaster, city officials say.
For the sick, elderly, car-less and careless, much of the focus in New Orleans is on a city-assisted evacuation program built after Katrina that aims to shuttle 30,000 or more residents to safety with their families and pets from 17 “Evacu-Spots” across the city.
The aim is to balance the scales in favor of flight.
“Our idea in helping you to make your decision to evacuate is removing whatever barrier there is,” said Aaron Miller, the city’s interim director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
“We did not take that situation and just say, ‘Woe is me,’ ” said New Orleans Health Department Director Charlotte Parent, who recalls feeling “like you were on an island” during Katrina, when she was a nurse at Touro Infirmary. “We took the situation and said, ‘We’re not going to let that happen to us again,’ and every time we’re going to look at it and improve it.”
If all goes as planned, local and state officials say, the action starts days before a parish president or mayor orders a mandatory evacuation.
The number of players involved has mushroomed. An emergency operations center once outfitted with 13 seats now holds 80, reserved for an alphabet soup of agencies, Miller said.
Breaking down the hours
State officials say forecasters now get a far better read not just on wind speed and direction but also on the character and potential impact of approaching storms, adding context to the Saffir-Simpson wind scale — on which Katrina ultimately landed as a Category 3 hurricane.
As early as 106 hours before landfall, a state bus contract calls for as many as 600 private coaches from up to 1,000 miles away to begin deploying in waves, said Christopher Guilbeaux, a deputy director of preparedness with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, or GOHSEP.
The bus contract replaced a costly plan for Amtrak trains and is mostly for Orleans and Jefferson parishes, he said. The buses hold 45 to 50 people, with the fleet capable of rolling 30,000 people out to seven state shelters and beyond.
Before Katrina, “there was no state-assisted evacuation plan. It was all on the locals to get their people out,” Guilbeaux said.
A separate state plan targets people with special medical needs, he said, with paramedic units, buses, ambulances and “in some cases, aviation assets.”
According to GOHSEP, in-state shelters now can hold 60,000 evacuees, with room for 13,000 special-needs evacuees under planning that started in 2008. Other states can house 22,500 evacuees under compacts now in place.
Civilian and military aircraft are ready to fly out another 10,000 evacuees.
“The city has a set of folks that systematically select those people they’re going to put on planes. It’s not anything to do with how rich they are,” Guilbeaux said. “We make sure it’s not anybody with a pet or a medical condition where they have to carry an oxygen bottle, somebody who can’t climb the stairs onto a plane.”
The plan was deployed for Gustav, he said, with more than 6,500 people flown out.
Contraflow, the traffic system that flips around incoming highways for double-time egress, has been lengthened in parts. Traffic experts say contraflow worked relatively well before Katrina made landfall, compared with the huge snarls seen a year earlier with Hurricane Ivan — a false alarm long cited as a deterrent to flight from Katrina.
Contraflow won’t begin until 50 hours before landfall. By then, New Orleans officials say, a well-drilled plan for city-assisted evacuation should be underway.
Some 4,000 names of people who want help getting out now populate a city database that didn’t exist for Katrina, Parent said. The list is scrubbed year-round for people who die or move. Lately, the city is experimenting with robocalls to keep the list current.
“This is not, ‘Hurricane season’s coming, so let’s make sure we have everything.’ We’re notifying those citizens that have medical special needs all year long,” Parent said.
“They really are now socialized to be prepared in the sense of, ‘I need to make sure the city knows I’m on oxygen now or can no longer get to my front door,’ ” she said. “We’re mostly concerned about their ability to ambulate so we can know how far they can walk. If they need electricity to survive, we need to know that.”
The city groups those needing help with mapping software, to organize medical buses or ambulances under state contracts for transport to special-needs facilities.
Parent said the city got federal approval for a pilot program to use Medicare data “to see who these people were with medical issues and equipment, to go out and find them in an emergency if it came to that.” Better relations with the feds overcame concerns over health care privacy issues, Parent said.
“These are things that happen here now in New Orleans that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” she said.
Getting pets to safety
Also on the help list are those with pets. Alicia Haefele, of the Louisiana SPCA, said the registry includes 450 pets — dogs and cats mostly but also snakes, rabbits, even miniature ponies. “We go and meet with every single person on that list,” she said.
The SPCA, which operates the city’s animal shelter, cites a 2006 survey that found pets were among the top reasons people gave for staying through Katrina. The same survey said a third of people in Katrina’s path stayed by choice. “Limited means” accounted for 28 percent of those who stayed, the survey showed.
A federal bill passed after Katrina requires the government to include pets in evacuation plans. In New Orleans, people who want city help evacuating will travel in tandem and be “co-sheltered” with their pets at select locales, where they’ll care for their own pets while away.
In Katrina, Haefele said, “everybody was kind of making it up as we went.”
Some estimates of how many animals were left in the nearly empty city after Katrina exceed 100,000, she said.
“It was the worst natural disaster for animals as well,” she said.
The rubber meets the road at the 17 EvacuSpots, a post-Katrina concept enhanced a few years ago by distinctive 800-pound steel sculptures at each spot.
A group of 500 volunteers — including retired Marine Jack Woynowski in Lakeview and 25-year-old social worker Mike Shulman in Bywater — will register whoever shows up and hand them wristbands, pet carriers if needed and a seat on a bus bound for the Union Pacific Terminal for a ride out of town.
In Gustav, evacuteers shuttled 18,000 people — more than half of the system’s designed capacity, said Executive Director David Morris. Combating mistrust through outreach is among the biggest tasks, he said.
“When the order goes out to evacuate, you’re not going to just hear it from the mayor. You’re going to hear it from your pastor. You’re going to hear it from the executive director of that nonprofit that serves you every day,” he said. “When you show up at that EvacuSpot, hopefully you’re going to be looking at the face of someone you know very well or who at the very least knows where you come from.”
Key to the city’s plan is an agency that was ill-prepared for Katrina. Justin Augustine, CEO of the Regional Transit Authority, oversees a fleet a third the size of the one that mostly flooded 10 years ago. His buses and 65 paratransit vans will begin scooping up evacuees 54 hours before landfall, he said.
“We have a complete plan on how to move our drivers, feed our drivers, house our drivers, but more importantly stay within the boundaries of the community until the evacuation order comes,” Augustine said.
The city’s plan fits into a statewide playbook that starts with a push to clear the lowest endangered areas by 50 hours before the onset of tropical storm-force winds, a second phase at 40 hours for areas outside of the levee protection system and a 30-hour mark for the greater New Orleans area.
Nursing homes and hospitals, which saw scores of deaths in the aftermath of Katrina, now have evacuation plans that are far more elaborate, individualized and scrutinized, officials said.
Evacuating medical facilities
The state Department of Health and Hospitals, which played a negligible role before Katrina, now is tasked with enforcing stringent rules governing evacuation plans for health care providers, said agency Secretary Kathy Kliebert.
A decade ago, “providers knew they were going to need to take care of individuals. Well, that didn’t always happen,” Kliebert said. “Providers out there just assumed the state would take care of them or somebody else would take care of them rather than have a very comprehensive plan of their own.”
The department now approves evacuation plans for all nursing homes and hospitals, and Parent and Miller said the city keeps close contact with nursing homes in New Orleans to ensure their plans will work.
State Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry said hospitals have moved generators and taken other steps to “harden their structures” since Katrina. Any hospital evacuations are coordinated through the military, Guidry said; the state doesn’t have the capacity to absorb south Louisiana patients in hospitals elsewhere.
“We look at the military like Expedia.com,” he said.
A regional network keeps track of available hospital beds and who takes them. In Katrina, some families spent months trying to locate loved ones.
“We had no clue who was where,” Kliebert said. “We’d have a hospital in Arkansas or Kentucky call and say, ‘We have three of your patients here.’ They had very limited information, especially with an elderly person with dementia.”
The expensive and complex planning has drawn the attention of cities and states elsewhere. Hurricane Sandy prompted calls to Louisiana from East Coast states seeking advice.
Dividing into groups
LSU civil engineer Brian Wolshon, director of the Gulf Coast Center for Evacuation and Transportation Resiliency, described the challenges in four overlapping categories: people who want to evacuate, people who don’t, people who can and people who can’t.
The biggest focus in New Orleans since Katrina, he said, has been addressing that last group.
“We’ve seen the emergence of Evacuteer, but it’s more than just that. It’s also the focus on the elderly, a lot of focus on institutional evacuations, making sure hospitals can evacuate,” said Wolshon, a disaster-planning consultant.
“It’s a low-probability, high-consequence event. Look, there’s not enough money in the city of New Orleans to fix all their potholes. It’s hard, but they’ve learned their lessons,” Wolshon said. “As an independent person who studies this stuff, if there was a real big problem, I’d rather be in New Orleans than any other city in the country.”
Still, officials with a hand in the complex evacuation scheme fret over public confidence.
“My biggest fear is that people are going to look at what happened in the past and allow that to color their decision for what they do, without believing these things are in place to benefit them and keep families safe,” said Morris, of Evacuteer. “Having the Superdome open as a shelter of last resort when there’s a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on the city — that was a decision the city of New Orleans took a step back from and said, ‘This can’t ever happen again.’ ”
Augustine, the RTA chief, scoffed at the notion that many New Orleanians could be complacent after what happened in 2005.
“I think we’re not giving credit to our community,” he said. “Our community is smarter. The younger generation, they take it a lot more seriously than before. Hurricanes are no joke. Nobody wants to be associated with anybody losing their life.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.