New Orleans Tests Revamped Hurricane Evacuation Plan
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HURRICANE PLANNER: Currently, a hurricane watch is in effect for the entire Louisiana coast.
TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: The emergency operations center in Baton Rouge, running a full-scale simulation of a fictitious storm named Alicia, about to make landfall in southeastern Louisiana.
HURRICANE PLANNER: Currently, we are an estimated 48 hours from landfall.
TOM BEARDEN: The exercise started on Friday and runs through today. The idea was to allow first responders and public officials throughout the state, like New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, to test their plans for reacting to a Category 3 hurricane.
RAY NAGIN, Mayor of New Orleans: New Orleans is definitely in the cone of probability, as far as it hitting us. As for our new plan, we’ll be calling tomorrow. Most likely, it looks as though we may have a mandatory evacuation.
TOM BEARDEN: New plans outlined by the mayor and the governor call for a mandatory evacuation when a Category 3 or higher hurricane is predicted to strike the city. As before, officials expect most citizens to use their own vehicles to get away.
They hope to speed the evacuation by converting most major highways into one-way routes out of the city. And there are plans to activate 6,000 National Guardsmen to protect people’s property while they’re gone.
The goal is to avoid the deadly consequences of Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,000 people in the state. Thousands of others who remained in New Orleans during the storm were crammed into the Superdome, begging for food and water.
In a sharp break with the past, Nagin said this year New Orleans will not provide any shelters for people who don’t have transportation. Instead, people will be evacuated as early as three days before projected landfall.
Governor Kathleen Blanco explained.
GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), Louisiana: When hurricanes threaten, the best way to save lives, as we all know very well, is to get people away from the danger zone before the hurricane strikes. Our citizens must know and understand that that is the safest way they can protect themselves and their families.
Finding a destination
TOM BEARDEN: For the exercise, volunteers played the part of evacuees. The plan calls for people to be picked up by city transit buses at various locations and assembled at the New Orleans Convention Center. Each person would receive a wrist band and be added to a computer database.
Retired Marine Corps Colonel Jerry Sneed runs the operation for the city's Office of Homeland Security.
JERRY SNEED, New Orleans Department of Homeland Security: That band is identified to a family member or a person, and we add the children. And then, when they get on the state bus, just re-scan. We're able to send the technology straight to the state to let them know who's on what bus.
And, eventually, the state would actually send back word to us telling us which citizens are at what shelter. If they have to move them, they update their data system and data, and we will know -- they'll tell the mayor where his citizens are.
TOM BEARDEN: But it's still not clear where all those buses would actually go and where evacuees would find shelter. The city says that's the state responsibility, and the director of New Orleans' Homeland Security Office, retired Colonel Terry Ebbert says it's also America's responsibility.
TERRY EBBERT, Director, New Orleans Department of Homeland Security: Our biggest problem -- and I feel very strongly that to evacuate potentially 1.5 million people from southeast Louisiana and expect a low-population state like Louisiana to house 40 percent of its population is not practical.
We need to have a national sheltering plan with major mega-areas where we can transport people to. It's not only the buses, but a single mother with three children, ten dollars, and a half a tank of gas. How can I put her on the road and say, "Just drive, and listen to the radio, and they'll direct you to a shelter"?
She can't do that. When her tank goes dry, she no longer can move. She can't feed her family. She's out in the middle of nowhere. So the issue of destinations is very important.
Staying behind to help
TOM BEARDEN: The destination issue is complicated by the fact that two cities, Baton Rouge and Houston, where thousands of Katrina evacuees were sheltered, are reluctant to volunteer their facilities in the future.
Another uncertainty is whether enough transit authority workers will stay on the job long enough to drive all those buses, operators like Keith Stevens.
KEITH STEVENS, Regional Transportation Authority: If I have to stay here until 24 hours before the storm to tell people to evacuate, then I suppose it's a tough question.
TOM BEARDEN: In the past, he's always evacuated early and driven his family to safety. If he stays to drive a bus, his wife and son will be on their own to make a 12- to 20-hour drive.
KEITH STEVENS: We had a talk about that this morning, you know? I said, "You're going to have to make that drive now, you know." And that's one of our concerns, you know? And where are we going to be going? And all those types of things.
TOM BEARDEN: The city believes that an early evacuation that would have employees out well before a storm will be enough to persuade people to keep working.
New Orleans also wants to avoid a repetition of another Hurricane Katrina tragedy: nursing home residents abandoned to drown when the city's levees broke. People with medical problems will be bused to the Amtrak station, where they'll be put aboard trains to take them to properly equipped facilities inland, Ebbert says, probably to other states.
TERRY EBBERT: I think they need to look very seriously at converting some rail cars to be evacuation of medically needy people, because there is no capability to move people on stretchers, terminal patients, and that is a real problem.
A bump in the road
TOM BEARDEN: Small towns, like Baker, Louisiana, north of Baton Rouge, were part of the drill scenario, too. Baker is home to FEMA's largest trailer park, 500 campers housing about 1,500 people. And there are more than 200,000 people statewide living in unfinished homes and mobile homes.
Authorities say the trailers can't provide adequate shelter in strong winds and will have to be evacuated. In the morning, Baker's mayor, Harold Rideau, said things were going pretty well.
MAYOR HAROLD RIDEAU, Baker, Louisiana: The key to any operations is communication, and I feel like we're on top of it. We're communicating with each department. And we've actually done this before, in reality. So I have a lot of confidence in the people of the city of Baker and that we can actually do this and do it well.
TOM BEARDEN: But Baker's police and fire department stood around for most of the day, because the order never came from Baton Rouge to stage the mock evacuation. Instead, Baker was ordered to conduct exercises freeing hostages and to respond to a mock fire at a power plant. The city then canceled the whole thing in disgust.
While local officials praised first responders on the ground, they blamed the state and federal governments for a communication breakdown.
SIDNEY GAUTREAUX, Chief, Baker, Louisiana: And as we stand here today, there is no plan. If you're asking me, having gone through Katrina and Rita, and from a law enforcement standpoint, and being able to see all of the entities involved, from what I've experienced today, in regards to this, I don't see that we're much better off now, if any, than we were last year.
HURRICANE PLANNER: So how are we going to get the information as to where the buses depart from?
Citizens send the word out
TOM BEARDEN: Meanwhile, inside a temporary emergency operations center in New Orleans, officials from various agencies were working together to address problems very likely to occur in a real emergency.
HURRICANE PLANNER: There's only a triage for transportation at the specific request of the state. What we're identifying here is that's a problem.
HURRICANE PLANNER: Right, you keep loved ones together, but the medical needy one goes to the medical needs shelter.
TOM BEARDEN: But beyond the city center, in neighborhoods like Bywater, some residents wondered whether the city and state plans are adequate.
PATRICIA MEYER, Louisiana Resident: The city may make all the grand plans in the world, but if it's not brought to the person who needs to know and needs to know where to go, it's going nowhere.
TOM BEARDEN: So Patricia Meyer and Phyllis Paren (ph) decided to go door to door, passing out information booklets on the evacuation plans. The long-time neighborhood activists believe that, despite all the planning, many people will stay here and ride out future storms.
People will stay even if that's...
PATRICIA MEYER: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely.
TOM BEARDEN: Why would they defy that order?
LOUISIANA RESIDENT: Because it's their property. They want to protect us. They don't trust the city.
TOM BEARDEN: That's exactly the scenario that homeland security officials fear most.