Most days, crime and politics dominate New Orleans' daily headlines, while food and music consume our leisure hours. However, six months out of the year (June 1 to Nov. 30), we all live with the knowledge we may have to flee the city with just a few days' notice, while those who cannot evacuate must seek higher ground. During those stressful times, hurricanes trump all other concerns.
September is traditionally the peak month for hurricane season. However, four Atlantic storms were named by July 5 -- the fastest start to any season in recorded history, according to the National Hurricane Center. Last week, south Louisiana residents had barely cleaned up from the Fourth of July holiday when Tropical Storm Cindy crashed ashore. By week's end, Hurricane Dennis threatened to track her course.
Ominously, state police responded to Cindy's rapid approach by canceling a previously scheduled contra-flow exercise, an interstate traffic configuration designed to expedite the safe evacuation of tens of thousands of south Louisiana residents. With winds gusting up to minimal hurricane strength (74 miles per hour), Cindy dumped rain, downed power lines and toppled trees, leaving some 270,000 people in the metro area without power at one point. "When you see oak trees that have been up for 200, 250 years toppling with the roots intact, that is a pretty impressive sight for a tropical storm," says Capt. Mike Sanders of the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Office, who saw a number of hurricanes in his previous career as a reporter for WDSU-TV.
Every named storm poses unique problems, despite the best-laid plans of the public, government and emergency management officials. Two problems were immediately apparent in the wake of Cindy -- malfunctioning traffic lights and the plight of the homebound elderly. As Cindy churned on toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast, residents waited at home for the restoration of electricity. Those who could get to work often did so and at some peril. Signal lights went dark at major intersections. Some motorists foolishly sped through the disabled lights. Instead, each driver should approach intersections with disabled traffic lights the legally required way -- as four-way stops. This simple practice should be reinforced by police, city leaders and future hurricane evacuation advisories.
The widespread power outages and the threat of more storms raise unique questions about caring for our elderly residents, especially those dependent on electricity-powered life support systems in their homes. WWL-AM Radio talk show host Garland Robinette told his audience he received three calls from area senior citizens who were having trouble breathing because their respirators had gone out due to the power outages. The New Orleans Council on Aging, meanwhile, reports that 10,000 elderly residents have no means of evacuation. City officials urge able-bodied neighbors to help those senior citizens escape the city.
Much debate in the recent legislative session focused (and appropriately so) on the state's wasteful allocation of millions of taxpayer dollars for empty beds at major nursing homes. While there are many good arguments for state funding of home health care and encouraging independent living for the elderly, we apparently need a better system of ensuring such folks get the vital services they need. Our senior citizens cannot wait for government and the utility companies to design a fail-safe system this hurricane season. It is up to all of us to check on our elderly neighbors during a storm.
As Hurricane Dennis barreled through the Caribbean late last week, we wondered how effectively the Louisiana National Guard could respond to rescue and recovery efforts when 3,000 Guard members are still in Iraq. Maj. General Bennett Landreneau in May said there would be 8,000 Guard members in Louisiana, ready to respond for disaster duty. Further, the Guard could get help from units in neighboring states, if needed. Time -- and Dennis -- will tell. At Gambit Weekly's press time, the hurricane was expected to escalate to Category III strength (111 to 130 miles per hour).
We also hope the rest of the nation is watching as we brace for Dennis and more storms this busy hurricane season. United States Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter are wisely reminding their colleagues on Capitol Hill about the importance of federal funding for coastal restoration efforts as a means of safeguarding South Louisiana's transportation routes for domestic energy produced in the Gulf of Mexico.
The morning after Cindy roared through town, comedian Robin Williams -- whose mother was raised in New Orleans -- appeared on Ellen DeGeneres' daytime TV show. Williams joked about how hurricanes were part of our culture. Every once in a while, he said, God comes down from above to say, "Nice to see ya!" With that, Williams gestured as if scattering a city like a deck of playing cards. The TV studio audience laughed, but many New Orleanians literally missed the joke due to Cindy's power outage. This time of year, comedy is not king.