Ivan exposes flaws in N.O.'s disaster plans
05:09 PM CDT on Sunday, September 19, 2004
By KEVIN McGILL
Those who had the money to flee Hurricane Ivan ran into hours-long traffic jams. Those too poor to leave the city had to find their own shelter - a policy that was eventually reversed, but only a few hours before the deadly storm struck land.
New Orleans dodged the knockout punch many feared from the hurricane, but the storm exposed what some say are significant flaws in the Big Easy's civil disaster plans.
Much of New Orleans is below sea level, kept dry by a system of pumps and levees. As Ivan charged through the Gulf of Mexico, more than a million people were urged to flee. Forecasters warned that a direct hit on the city could send torrents of Mississippi River backwash over the city's levees, creating a 20-foot-deep cesspool of human and industrial waste.
Residents with cars took to the highways. Others wondered what to do.
"They say evacuate, but they don't say how I'm supposed to do that," Latonya Hill, 57, said at the time. "If I can't walk it or get there on the bus, I don't go. I don't got a car. My daughter don't either."
Advocates for the poor were indignant.
"If the government asks people to evacuate, the government has some responsibility to provide an option for those people who can't evacuate and are at the whim of Mother Nature," said Joe Cook of the New Orleans ACLU.
It's always been a problem, but the situation is worse now that the Red Cross has stopped providing shelters in New Orleans for hurricanes rated above Category 2. Stronger hurricanes are too dangerous, and Ivan was a much more powerful Category 4.
In this case, city officials first said they would provide no shelter, then agreed that the state-owned Louisiana Superdome would open to those with special medical needs. Only Wednesday afternoon, with Ivan just hours away, did the city open the 20-story-high domed stadium to the public.
Mayor Ray Nagin's spokeswoman, Tanzie Jones, insisted that there was no reluctance at City Hall to open the Superdome, but said the evacuation was the top priority.
"Our main focus is to get the people out of the city," she said.
Callers to talk radio complained about the late decision to open up the dome, but the mayor said he would do nothing different.
"We did the compassionate thing by opening the shelter," Nagin said. "We wanted to make sure we didn't have a repeat performance of what happened before. We didn't want to see people cooped up in the Superdome for days."
When another dangerous hurricane, Georges, appeared headed for the city in 1998, the Superdome was opened as a shelter and an estimated 14,000 people poured in. But there were problems, including theft and vandalism.
This time far fewer took refuge from the storm - an estimated 1,100 - at the Superdome and there was far greater security: 300 National Guardsmen.
The main safety measure - getting people out of town - raised its own problems.
More than 1 million people tried to leave the city and surrounding suburbs on Tuesday, creating a traffic jam as bad as or worse than the evacuation that followed Georges. In the afternoon, state police took action, reversing inbound lanes on southeastern Louisiana interstates to provide more escape routes. Bottlenecks persisted, however.
Col. Henry Whitehorn, head of state police, said he believes his agency acted appropriately, but also acknowledged he never expected a seven-hour-long crawl for the 60 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
It was so bad that some broadcasters were telling people to stay home, that they had missed their window of opportunity to leave. They claimed the interstates had turned into parking lots where trapped people could die in a storm surge.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Nagin both acknowledged the need to improve traffic flow and said state police should consider reversing highway lanes earlier. They also promised meetings with governments in neighboring localities and state transportation officials to improve evacuation plans.
But Blanco and other state officials stressed that, while irritating, the clogged escape routes got people out of the most vulnerable areas.
"We were able to get people out," state Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc said. "It was successful. There was frustration, yes. But we got people out of harm's way."
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