Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee recently attracted consternation from New Orleans residents.
The Republican presidential candidate suggested that New Orleanians didn’t evacuate for Hurricane Katrina because they had been desensitized by climate change activists who exaggerate the threat of dangerous weather.
The remark has no factual basis, of course.
But it also demonstrates a misunderstanding of how rough evacuations are.
Those who have never evacuated for an extreme event tend to think it’s a holiday trip over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go.
Evacuations are always sudden, stressful and difficult. Incoming information changes hour by hour. They are expensive especially when you factor in lost wages. And they can be dangerous.
In the face of Hurricane Rita in September 2005, when Texas’s mayor asked Houston residents to evacuate by saying “Don’t follow the example of New Orleans,” there was gridlock, emergencies and empty gas stations. The evacuation contributed to 60 deaths including 24 nursing home residents on a bus that caught fire and exploded.
And all too often, the evacuation turns out to be for naught.
In September 2004, more than half of New Orleans residents evacuated in advance of Hurricane Ivan using the state’s contraflow plan for the first time. But delays were horrific, and many went back home to watch Ivan sputter out.
Nonetheless, Ivan exposed a contraflow plan in need of revision. One year later, preceding Katrina, the state, without federal assistance would evacuate 93 percent of the Greater New Orleans area in what would be cited as the most successful rapid evacuation of a major city in American history.
But clearly, not nearly enough attention was paid to those without a car, credit cards and a network of family and friends outside the city.
Analyses show that the elderly are the least likely to evacuate due to reasons ranging from stubbornness to staying to care for a beloved pet.
Analyses also show that the primary reason that the Katrina evacuation did not save more lives was due to the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers’ levees and floodwalls.
Two days before Katrina’s landfall, Max Mayfield, then-director of the National Hurricane Center personally called Mayor Ray Nagin, telling him that some levees in greater New Orleans could be overtopped.
Those who stayed knew they would lose electricity and perhaps get some soggy carpets. But no one predicted the levees themselves would break.
After Katrina, many businesses relocated to other cities because evacuations themselves shut down businesses.
No one should ever treat the call to evacuate as something simple and obvious. Experienced evacuation volunteers can all agree that even in the best of circumstances, an evacuation is a living nightmare.
founder and president, Levees.org