Mayor Ray Nagin unveiled the city's new hurricane evacuation plan last week, and while the plan comes at the height of the mayor's re-election campaign -- with expected levels of praise and criticism attendant to that fact -- it's an important document that should be examined free of political considerations. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there's no room for politics in any discussion of hurricane preparedness. That said, one valid criticism of the plan is that Nagin -- true to form -- did not adequately consult other local and state officials before releasing it. For example, Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden says Nagin's plan for busing New Orleanians to his town is a sound idea, but Nagin didn't bother to ask him where evacuees might be sheltered once they arrive in the Capitol City. Holden noted that the Baton Rouge Rivercenter, which housed thousands of Katrina evacuees, will not be available this year. Instead, Holden says he will work with faith-based groups to open shelters. Those kinds of details must be worked out in the coming weeks, and in that spirit we think the plan should be embraced by everyone as a good starting point, recognizing that it is a work in progress and that time is short.
Mayor Nagin says he designed the plan with the lessons of Katrina in mind, and at first glance he has made some major improvements. Highlights of the plan include the following:
• He will order a mandatory evacuation for storms that are Category 2 strength or higher at least 30 hours before a storm's eye makes landfall near New Orleans. The evacuation order must conform to the state plan, which coordinates the city's evacuation with those of surrounding parishes.
• Neither the Louisiana Superdome nor the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center will be used as a refuge. This is perhaps the most significant improvement over the experiences of Hurricanes Katrina, Ivan and Georges.
• RTA buses will pick up persons who need transportation from locations throughout the city and bring them to the convention center. There, they will board other buses bound for shelters across Louisiana and in neighboring states. Nagin plans to declare all RTA drivers "essential personnel," thereby requiring them to report to work during a storm.
• The city is still working out details with Amtrak to evacuate the elderly and "special needs" evacuees (i.e., persons with chronic medical problems) from Union Station. Individuals with special needs will be asked to register with the city so that they can be located when it's time to evacuate.
• National Guard troops and NOPD officers will patrol intersections once the evacuation is under way and while it remains in effect -- until winds reach 55 mph. They will resume patrols against looting and violence as the winds decrease. Nagin says he has requested 3,000 National Guard troops, but that must be coordinated with Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who as governor authorizes use of the state Guard.
• The city will impose a curfew as soon as a mandatory evacuation is ordered. Anyone caught outside after hours will be arrested.
Each of these elements represents a big step forward, but much remains to be done. Moreover, Nagin admits -- realistically, in our view -- that in order for the plan to succeed many citizens must take responsibility for their own safety and that of their extended families and neighbors. Asking persons with special needs to register with the city is a crucial step, and anyone with a family member or neighbor fitting that description should do everything possible to get them registered by calling (877) 286-6431. That same number can be called for classes and guest speakers on the subject of emergency preparedness.
Another suggestion we'd like to echo is the mayor's call for families to draw up family-emergency plans, including specifics as to when and where to evacuate, what to bring, where to gather if evacuating in a convoy, bringing enough money and important papers, food and medicines, etc. The bottom line is that hurricane preparedness is everybody's responsibility, not just City Hall's.
By way of constructive criticism, we strongly suggest that Mayor Nagin meet immediately with Gov. Blanco, leaders of surrounding parishes, mayors of major Louisiana cities, federal officials, military leaders and Red Cross officials to work out precise details of when, where and how New Orleans evacuees will be sheltered in the future. For example, there's no reason why people can't know in advance exactly where they'll be going in the event of a storm. We would add that citizens from the same neighborhood should be sent to shelters in the same town or community. Seeing familiar faces at the end of the road can ease tensions when evacuation becomes necessary, and knowing in advance that neighbors will be together during that process can make everything work better.
Finally, we hope the mayor can find a way to secure additional buses if a mandatory evacuation becomes necessary. Right now, the city has about 80 RTA buses. It will need about 100 more to move the 10,000 people in need of transportation. Mayor Nagin has declared May as the city's first hurricane preparedness month. As citizens prepare to do their part, getting more buses and drivers should be his top priority.