Before Katrina, Traci Belott didn't fret much about hurricane season. Like many, Belott, married with two children, considered hurricanes something that only happened to people in Florida.
"I've never worried about evacuation before," Belott says. "My husband has always said we needed to get water, flashlights and batteries, but I thought he was being melodramatic."
Not anymore. Even though her family's home suffered extensive damage from Katrina, Belott considers herself lucky. The family was vacationing in Destin, Fla., when they heard Katrina was headed for New Orleans, so they briefly returned to the city, packed up a few belongings and went back to Destin. Belott says now she'll be anxious anytime a storm enters the Gulf, but she is trying to be proactive.
"I need to sit down and prepare a list of things to take with us," she says.
We all should plan to evacuate. The hurricane-preparation jokes -- stick a hatchet in the attic and get a case of beer -- reflect naive memories of the past; Katrina blew away such foolhardy attitudes. Many people who could have left for Katrina didn't, and no one should make that mistake again, says Walter Maestri, former director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for Jefferson Parish.
"Every family, every business, every entity in the metropolitan area, should have a very distinct and documented plan," Maestri said during a recent phone interview from the Florida Governor's Hurricane Conference.
Maestri also attended the National Hurricane Conference, where Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, told him to expect a tough hurricane season this year. Based on that information, Maestri says, the New Orleans metro area remains vulnerable. The whole area is in a state of recovery; levees are compromised, debris still litters neighborhoods, and temporary trailers can become "flying missiles" during a storm. Maestri believes these are reasons enough for evacuating in the face of lesser storms.
"If you're in temporary housing, you need to get ready much sooner than ever before," Maestri cautions. "If tropical storm-force winds are forecast, leave. Those FEMA trailers simply can't handle anything like hurricane winds. If you live in a house but in a neighborhood with trailers, I'd say the same thing. In the past, if there were no trailers in your area, we said Category 3. Today, given the fact that we're in recovery and we still have levee problems, we're talking Category 2 for sure, and, perhaps, even Category 1."
Once a storm has been forecast, Maestri feels that the general evacuation plan -- known as "50/40/30" -- still holds true.
"The State Police say if you live in the low-lying areas -- St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Lower Jefferson, etc. -- you need to move 50 hours before forecast landfall," Maestri says. "If you live closer in on the West Bank -- Gretna, Marrero, Harvey, Algiers -- that's the 40-hour zone. And the East Bank is the 30-hour zone."
Maestri says that plan is recognized as the best in the country.
So what should you consider when you're developing an individual evacuation plan? Maestri thinks the easiest way to personalize your plan is to think who, where, and how:
• Who is going with you?
• Where are you going?
• How are you going to get there?
"Those questions require people to really think through and get involved with the planning process," Maestri says.
Who is going with you? Your family has to be your first priority, and don't forget four-legged family members. Make preparations for pets to come along. You can arrange for their safekeeping at a kennel outside of the affected areas, or find a hotel that takes pets. (See story on P. 20.)
If you have room in your car, consider someone less fortunate. Although the city has said that the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center will no longer be used as shelters, the mayor's evacuation plan calls for people without transportation to be taken to the convention center, where they will be bused out of the city. Maestri isn't comfortable with that idea.
"It's not a plan I would have drafted," he says. "I understand what New Orleans is doing, but the intermediate step is problematic. If the storm comes earlier, we sometimes flood with an intense thundershower. You can't travel, so people could get trapped there. It's better not to have that intermediate step if you can avoid it."
You can help. If there is space in your vehicle, Maestri suggests contacting a neighbor who may not have a way to evacuate. Find out their plans and offer them a seat if they are in need. Another option is to call Operation Brother's Keeper (504-620-3105), a transportation program designed by the Red Cross that partners with the city and other local groups.
Where are you going? Have three different evacuation destinations. Map out where you can go depending on where the storm is expected to make landfall. When you are mapping out your three destinations, Maestri says it's important to consider the state's "Contraflow" plan.
"Learn the routes that you've decided to take, and learn them from two perspectives: under normal circumstances, and when Contraflow is in place," advises Maestri, adding that the state's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Web site (www.ohsep.louisiana.gov/evacinfo/stateevacrtes.htm) has updated information and maps regarding Contraflow. (Also see our map, P. 18)
For each possible destination, make a list of hotels you can contact for vacancies when you have decided on your escape route. (See "Accommodations," P. 24.) Remember, in case you have to travel farther, it's a good idea to expand the list of hotels beyond where you intend to go. Kay Wilkins, executive director of the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of the Red Cross, says that reservations don't apply to shelters, and people shouldn't plan on going to particular shelters.
"The state operates shelter information points -- those are on our evacuation guides," Wilkins says. "The points are located above the I-10/I-12 corridor. We have six different shelter information points -- most of the points are in rest areas or truck stops, where people can go. From there, they are directed to available shelters."
Wilkins also says if you are going to a shelter, bring your own bedding, snacks, flashlight, and water.
As for how you are going to get there, most people will travel by motor vehicle. Mike Right, a spokesperson for AAA, says just like people, your car must be prepared for the hurricane season. Make sure you get a tune-up and have your mechanic check your tires -- including the spare -- along with lights, hoses and engine coolant. For emergencies, store in your trunk a jack, wrench, tool kit and fire extinguisher. Throughout hurricane season -- June 1-Nov. 30 -- try to keep a full gas tank. Right also suggests getting maps that go beyond your evacuation route in case you need to go farther than originally planned.
If you are considering air travel, Michelle Duffourc, spokesperson for Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, says the sooner you plan to leave the better. Flights are normally 90 percent booked, so there aren't many seats. Plus, when airlines cease operations, availability varies from carrier to carrier.
There are various items that you should have with you. Wilkins says the Red Cross provides a checklist of disaster supplies (http://www.redcross.org/disaster/safety/fds-all.pdf) that can be printed out and items can be checked off as they are acquired. You should start acquiring items now, says Wilkins, because the list is extensive. (Also see our checklist on P. 24.)
"Pack a supply kit and keep it at the ready, which should include food and water -- we recommend one gallon per person per day. It's overwhelming to go out and buy everything at once, so buy a few items a week."
Besides medical and food supplies, Maestri thinks only those items -- photos, documents, etc. -- that are irreplaceable should be taken in the car.
"For most folks, their homes and furnishings are insured. I wouldn't be concerned with that."
Maestri additionally believes the best home preparation you can do is "for God's sake, have it insured." He feels that unless you already have boards for your house, it will be difficult to get plywood now, considering that many lumber-supply stores are still closed.
Businesses also need to be prepared. Maestri says it's critical for important business records to be transported, either by person or electronically, away from an evacuated area. Share with your employees centralized phone numbers they can use to report their whereabouts, and places they can go during the storm.
"Businesses learned from last year that they need to provide for their employees. If they do, employees will respond and come back," Maestri says.
Everyone should have the ability to leave and come back, but it does come down to being ready. Traci Belott wants to ensure her family's safety in the future, so she is not wasting any time. "Now's the time to put pen to paper and start my planning," she says.
Maestri puts evacuations into a perspective that most who live in the New Orleans area can understand:
"It's the price you have to pay for living and enjoying the wonderful culture and ambience of the City of New Orleans. It's the rent you pay -- you gotta go when these storms come our way."