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The Storm Next Time

The mass evacuation proved largely successful -- but it took place under ideal weather conditions.

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As Hurricane Ivan took aim at the Gulf Coast last week, it fell upon a waitress in a Lafayette coffee shop to explain the evacuation of 1 million people to two natives of the former Soviet Union who had just fled New Orleans. The couple was obviously worried and did not know what to expect or how to prepare for a hurricane, recalls Shawna White, a 23-year-old English major at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and a native of Morgan City. "I told them it's very stressful," White says. "You have to take it as it comes, living down here. The good thing is you know it's coming Š you go away, you come back, you clean up. Those are the basics."

Thankfully, the "clean up" step wasn't necessary for most New Orleanians, except for those who needed to remove sheets of plywood from their windows. Ivan curled away from the mouth of the Mississippi River, slamming into the Florida and Alabama Gulf Coast, and leaving New Orleans relatively unscathed. But with experts predicting the spawning of even more hurricanes due to unusually warm waters in the eastern Atlantic, it is important to review some lessons from Ivan to fine-tune our evacuation procedures for the storm next time.

For New Orleans, the Ivan experience served as both a wake-up call and a dry run. Despite major traffic delays and the deaths of four elderly passengers from unknown causes, the mass evacuation proved largely successful. Yet we must stress that the exodus took place under ideal weather conditions. Mayor Ray Nagin repeatedly urged evacuees to use alternate roads to I-10 this time, but next time some of those routes could be restricted or washed out by heavy rains or tropical storms, as has happened in the past. The lesson here: It's best to get out early.

To do that, we must all be prepared, and our state and local governments must be well coordinated. Nagin and Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard provided an excellent example of cooperation, but next time leaders from all over south Louisiana should be in the loop. Northshore officials rightly complained afterward that they were not consulted before thousands of evacuees were sent streaming into their parishes. In addition, some areas beyond the storm's reach didn't seem well prepared for the evacuation. Baton Rouge, for example, became a choke point for westward travelers. "It isn't too often Š that we've had to move over 1 million people through our community in 48 hours," Baton Rouge Mayor Bobby Simpson told The Associated Press.

It's not Baton Rouge's fault. The state needs to improve major roadways -- now. Ivan provides a new opportunity for state and local officials across Louisiana to make the case for more federal funding to extend the I-49 corridor and to remind the rest of America that coastal erosion eats away at our nation's natural hurricane defenses. The threat of a "doomsday" scenario in New Orleans is more real than ever. Federal funding for coastal restoration is desperately needed to maintain this buffer.

In assessing the evacuation, timing is a key concern. WWL-AM radio, the "Voice of the Gulf South," has the widest audience of any media in Louisiana and performed a valuable public service during Ivan as the state's designated emergency management station. But during the critical early hours of the evacuation, the station continued to air regular programming; evacuees seeking traffic reports instead heard Rush Limbaugh bashing CBS. In retrospect, the much-anticipated "contraflow" plan, developed after Hurricane Georges in 1998, should have been implemented sooner. The plan ultimately provided some relief from traffic congestion. Better communication between city emergency officials and the state police should get the job done more efficiently next time.

Locally, officials from the city and the Louisiana Superdome should coordinate with the American Red Cross to resolve if, how and when the Dome can be used effectively as an evacuation shelter. Currently, many New Orleanians expect the Dome to become the shelter of last resort. If this is not going to be the case, it should be communicated clearly and in advance of the next crisis. This issue arose during Hurricane Georges and should have been resolved by now. Of course, all able-bodied citizens bear the responsibility for evacuating themselves and their families. Nagin's voluntary evacuation request at 6 p.m. on Sept. 13 should have been a starting signal to leave the city -- not to begin the exhaustive preparations required for evacuation. Long lines at banks, stores and gas stations suggested that many people did not have a plan for Ivan or for the rest of the hurricane season. Tens of thousands of people did not try to leave until the following morning. By then, the roads out of the city were already dangerously congested. Each New Orleanian needs to review his or her plans. We also must consider our neighbors who do not own vehicles, along with the infirm and the elderly who live alone. An estimated 100,000 people remained in the city. Some did so because they had no other choice. They should be our first concern in planning for the storm next time.

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