Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hurricane Katrina: Why Didn't They Evacuate?

Why didn't they evacuate? A Category 5 hurricane? Massive? Heading straight for New Orleans? Why didn't they leave?

Many were too poor. They had no money. No credit card. No transportation. Nowhere to go. And they couldn't envision going outside the city. Such a thing was not part of their experience or their mental landscape. For their entire lives, their world was restricted to the neighborhood circumscribed by work, home, church, school. A trip across town was a rare adventure, maybe to see a doctor at Charity Hospital when the need arose. A trip to the state capital, Baton Rouge, seventy-five miles northwest of New Orleans, was unheard of--maybe like traveling to a foreign country.

This is hard to imagine for those of us who think nothing of hopping in a car and driving across the state or hopping on a plane and flying across the country. We are privileged. Many New Orleanians were not and had neither the means to enact nor the vision to imagine an evacuation. These were the ones who crowded into the Superdome and the Convention Center; who spent days in the stifling heat with no electricity and no plumbing, and in the case of the Convention Center, with no food and no water; who saw their infants and their grandparents die of exposure and dehydration right there on the sidewalk; who were finally, finally, after days of waiting, bussed out and taken to Texas or Arkansas or Georgia or Florida--or to Connecticut or Wisconsin or Minnesota or Utah--truly foreign territory with all the accompanying culture shock and disconnection.

But those with means--why didn't they evacuate? Many were elderly. They lived independently and got along well. They could manage their lives easily in their own homes, their own neighborhoods--where they knew all the folks, knew where everything was, had their routines. They knew they had slowed down with age, were no match for the young ones. But at home they didn't have to be. On evacuation, though--that was a different matter. Even if they went with family. Where would they be? How would they get their needs met? How would they know where anything was? Home had a strong sense of psychological safety that evacuation most decidedly did not. Besides, old timers had weathered many a hurricane at home. Home felt safe. These were the ones who died, trapped in their attics--of heat and dehydration--when the waters rose to the eaves.

But those who were younger. Why didn't they evacuate? Many were caring for ill, disabled, or elderly relatives at home. The logistics of evacuating with a person who may be bed-ridden, who may be incontinent, who may have dementia, who may have constant medical and physical needs that can be managed at home--but not on the road, not in bumper-to-bumper traffic inching along the interstate for hours on end, not in a strange motel or evacuation shelter in a distant city or town. No, the logistics of evacuating like that were overwhelming. Better to prepare the house well and stay at home. Among those were some who watched their ill or disabled or elderly relative drown, who simply could not maneuver their loved one up the stairs to the second floor or attic before the waters engulfed the first floor, who were left with a water-logged body to bury when the waters receded.

And others--why didn't they evacuate? Many stayed to care for their animals. One could evacuate with a small dog or a cat. But it's amazing how many people have several animals or large animals or unusual animals--like Jan with her brood of hens in the backyard, or Jim with his huge pig, or Lainey with her three dogs and five cats.

Lainey stayed with her animals, and although she lived in the crescent of land near the Mississippi River that didn't flood, she found in the days after the hurricane that conditions in New Orleans were such that she could not provide for those three dogs and five cats. So she loaded them into her station wagon and drove to her parents' home in Nebraska. She must have had to drive straight through. Where on earth could she stop for the night with three dogs and five cats?

I also think of Mary, rescued by boat from her roof and forced to leave her two elderly but still active dogs behind. Seeing a policeman she knew, Mary begged him to go and shoot her dogs, who would die quickly that way and not miss her and wonder why she didn't come and slowly starve to death in the flooded city. The policeman assured Mary that he would. Mary hopes that he did.

Many didn't evacuate for fear of looters--a very legitimate fear. Many of these actually believed in evacuation. The mother and children evacuated while the father stayed to guard the house, perhaps with a teenage son.

And then there were those who simply didn't believe that the hurricane would hit New Orleans--or if it did, that they could hunker down and be just fine when it passed. They were used to hurricanes headed toward New Orleans that always turned at the last minute and hit somewhere else. They may even have lived through Hurricane Betsy, which did hit New Orleans in 1965--and they stayed in the city then and did just fine. So they weren't going anywhere for Hurricane Katrina. And you know what? They were right. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it was a Category 3 hurricane. Much of New Orleans was actually okay after Hurricane Katrina passed through. It was the breaches in the levees--levees that were supposed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane--that flooded the city, after the hurricane had passed. It was not the hurricane itself.

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