As of press time, a unique local tradition was scheduled for Saturday, July 19, for a rain-weary New Orleans. The vodou-centric Island of Salvation Botanica in Bywater was set to open its doors for its sixth annual "Hurricane Ceremony," which involves everything from Haitian rum to fried pork to candles. The event centers on a public prayer offering to Our Lady of Prompt Succor, credited by believers with saving the city from hurricanes past, and Ezili Danto, a vodou spirit linked to protective motherhood.
Typically, this ceremony is held before the storms start. However, the hurricane season is already well upon us, as is another annual tradition: doomsday prophecies by the national media. The July 4 New York Times published an editorial in the wake of Tropical Storm Bill, stating: "Because of its unusual geography, the Big Easy is uniquely vulnerable -- if a powerful enough storm hits, experts warn, the city could be badly damaged and tens of thousands of people could be killed."
In response to the threat, local, state and national agencies are busy improving on existing plans guarding us from hurricanes, as well as creating new initiatives. Local citizens also must plan ahead and prepare to evacuate. From regular cleaning of curbside storm drains to checking in with elderly and vulnerable neighbors, everyone has a role in protecting against hurricanes.
Gov. Mike Foster has achieved one vital step in assisting local citizens by securing a "contra-flow" plan for I-59 with Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. Last fall, the metro area evacuated en masse when Hurricane Lili was predicted to make landfall near New Orleans as a Category 5. At the Mississippi border, I-59 turned into a parking lot -- a bottleneck resulting from Mississippi's refusal to allow contra-flow, which would reverse traffic northward on all lanes. If Lili had struck as a Category 5, the loss of life is too horrific to imagine.
Last year, Louisiana officials apparently negotiated with the wrong state agency in Mississippi for the contra-flow plan, according to Foster spokesperson Steven Johnston. Thankfully, on June 4 Foster and Musgrove announced a signed agreement that if Louisiana officials call for an evacuation, I-59 will be reversed, with both states working to provide food, water, shelter, health care and transportation help along the route.
Another improvement this year comes with the city's development of a Community Alert System (CAL), which uses a database to call home telephone numbers in a designated area to relay specific messages. The program could, for example, tell Lakeview to evacuate because of Lake Pontchartrain flooding, or inform the Lake Catherine neighborhood in eastern New Orleans about floodgate closings.
A new development is the advent of the National Hurricane Center's five-day forecast in tracking the storms, increased from the former three-day forecasts. The move was prompted by requests from the military, seeking advance notice to move massive numbers of equipment and personnel. However, local emergency officials say the new, longer forecasts are all but meaningless for area citizens.
"What the five-day forecast does is give a much greater opportunity for significant error," says Dr. Walter Maestri, director of emergency management for Jefferson Parish. "At five days out, there's a 350-mile error range on either side. That's Galveston, Texas, to Mobile, Ala. It's very difficult to make decisions based on that type of error."
However, both Maestri and his Orleans Parish colleague, Chief Terry Tullier, director of New Orleans' Office of Emergency Preparedness, say that local citizens shouldn't have to rely on long-range forecasts. "Your public officials will tell you when to evacuate," Tullier says. "It's important that everyone knows how to immediately respond when that call comes. Know the routine: where your valuables and important papers are, how to transport the pets and secure the house so, when it's time to go, you can lock the door, put the car in gear and get the heck out of Dodge."
Both Tullier and Maestri lament the fact that local evacuation routes are often blocked by floodwaters during a storm, especially the notorious dip in I-10 at the overpass near the Jefferson/Orleans parish line. The state Department of Transportation and Development is installing pumps that would effectively drain the worrisome spot, but the project is not expected to be complete until mid-2004.
While parish governments have little control over flooding, plans to protect "special needs" citizens, defined as those with medical conditions that prohibit evacuation, are in place. The Superdome again serves as the special needs shelter for Orleans Parish. Jefferson Parish has contracted agreements with West Jefferson, East Jefferson and Ochsner hospitals to house its special needs residents. Neither parish, in a break from past years, advertises in advance "last-resort" shelters for ordinary citizens, hoping that citizens will choose to evacuate.
Being a good neighbor, monitoring your block's storm drain and knowing your evacuation route remain the best measures in protecting against hurricanes. "We can't control the weather, but we can control the response," Tullier says. "Everyone needs to pay attention and be prepared. Because, like it or not, the hurricanes are coming. That much we do know." Hurricane season runs until Nov. 30.