“I am a Katrina survivor.” These were the first words out of Joan Ellen’s mouth when I spoke with her. And she was one of the lucky ones. She made it out of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. But not everyone was so fortunate. One of Joan Ellen’s neighbors did not evacuate because she could not bring her old dog with her to a shelter and would not leave him behind. Her neighbor died in the flooding. Joan Ellen recalls, “If I had known I would have taken her with me.”
Evacuations are more common than you might think. Every year people across the United States are asked to evacuate their homes due to fires, floods, and hurricanes. However, there are many reasons people may not be able to evacuate– including issues that New Orleans’ residents face, like lack of transportation, financial need, homelessness, and medical or mobility issues.
No one left behind
According to FEMA’s Preparedness in America report, people in highly populated areas were more likely to rely on public transportation to evacuate in the event of a disaster. In the event of a mandatory evacuation, approximately 40,000 people living in New Orleans will need assistance to evacuate because they don’t have a safe or alternative option.
After learning from Hurricane Katrina, the City of New Orleans will now call a mandatory evacuation nearly three days in advance of a dangerous or severe storm making landfall on the Louisiana coast. Everyone must leave during a mandatory evacuation until officials declare the city safe for re-entry.
Mobilizing the Evacuteers
The City also started City Assisted Evacuation (CAE) to help people who are unable to evacuate on their own. Through this program, the city provides free transportation for residents, along with their pets, to a safe shelter. CAE counts on volunteers from Evacuteer.org, a local non-profit organization that recruits, trains, and manages 500 evacuation volunteers called “Evacuteers” in New Orleans. As the Executive Director of this organization I tell people, “We are a year-round public health preparedness agency that promotes outreach to members of the community that aren’t always easy to reach, nor trusting of government, about their options and the evacuation process. The goal is to make sure that everyone using CAE is treated with dignity throughout the entire process.”
Evacuteers receive a text message if the City of New Orleans calls for a mandatory evacuation. Teams are assigned to seventeen pickup points, called Evacuspots, placed in neighborhoods around the city. The Evacuteers help register people and provide information about the evacuation process. When residents go to an Evacuspot, Evacuteers will give every person a ticket, a wristband, and a luggage tag to help track their information and ensure that families stay together. After the paperwork is filled out, evacuees are transported to the downtown Union Passenger Terminal bus station where they will board a bus, and for a smaller percentage, a plane, to a state or regional shelter. When the city is re-opened after the storm passes, the process will bring residents back home to New Orleans.
An artistic approach to save lives
Each Evacuspot is marked by a statue of a stick figure with his arm in the air, and looks as though he is hailing a safe ride out of the city. Erected by international public artist, Douglas Kornfeld, the statues are a public art initiative led, and fundraised, by Evacuteer.org. Installed at each of the pick-up points in 2013, the stainless steel statues measure 14-feet tall, and stand as a reminder to residents year-round that there is a process to ensure everyone has the opportunity to safely evacuate.
Do you know what to do?
- Have a plan. Know where your family will meet, both within and outside of your neighborhood, before a disaster.
- Fill ‘er up. Make sure you have a half a tank of gas at all times in case of an unexpected evacuation. If an evacuation seems likely, make sure your tank is full.
- Keep your options open. Have alternative routes and other means of transportation out of your area. Choose several destinations in different directions you can go to evacuate.
- Leave early. Plan to take one car per family to reduce congestion and delay.
- Stay alert. Do NOT drive into flooded areas. Roads and bridges may be washed out and be careful of downed power lines.
- Evacuteer: Evacuspots and City-Assisted Evacuation
- Love, write, light: What’s your love note to New Orleans?
- Public Health Matters: Public art with preparedness at heart
- NOLA Ready: Do you know where your Evacuspot is?
- Ready.gov: Evacuating yourself and your family
- New Orleans Public Radio: City tests evacuation system for start of hurricane season