By most accounts, New Orleans emerged from Hurricane Gustav relatively unscathed at least in comparison to much of south and central Louisiana. Sadly, Gustav seemed to attack the very parts of our state that were not already devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita three years ago. We join our fellow New Orleanians in wishing a speedy recovery to the communities that sustained the brunt of Gustav's wrath. Countless hours will be spent assessing the damage, but already we can make some initial assessments of the lessons learned since Katrina what worked this time, and what still needs improvement.
Of course, people across southeast Louisiana are breathing a sigh of relief that area levees and floodwalls stood up to Gustav's storm surge. Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers still have a lot of work to do, but we have passed our first crucial test post-Katrina. Let the word go forth: New Orleans can withstand a hurricane provided Washington keeps its promises and continues to invest in the nation's vital security and economic interests in south Louisiana.
Also high on the list of things that improved is south Louisiana's ability to pull off a massive evacuation. Given the circumstances we faced at the time, Mayor Ray Nagin made the right call by suggesting a voluntary evacuation early and then ordering a mandatory evacuation on Sunday, Aug. 31. Most New Orleanians got the message and started leaving town on Friday and Saturday. Yes, evacuating poses a hardship, but we've already seen how the alternative can be much worse. Lest we forget, Gustav killed more than 80 people before it touched Louisiana.
Coordination and communication are essential to a successful evacuation. Days before the storm's expected arrival, the city began picking up people unable to evacuate on their own from designated points all over town. By midday Sunday, New Orleans had evacuated nearly 18,000 people needing assistance. Overall, 2 million people fled south Louisiana the largest evacuation in the state's history. Getting that many people out of a region is fraught with risks, but in general our elected officials did their jobs.
State and federal officials appear to have learned a few lessons from Katrina as well. The feds learned that the time to respond to a hurricane is before landfall, not after. Federal officials showed up early and worked closely with Gov. Bobby Jindal and local officials during and after the storm's destructive march. If Katrina was a model of how not to respond, Gustav should serve as a template for how to prepare.
Jindal stood tall before, during and after Gustav so much so that many of his critics praised him for his poise during his first crucible as governor. Jindal has been accused of being too scripted in his public appearances, but this time he was wise to stick to a script. In each of his news conferences, he told citizens what they needed to know in plain, truthful terms: declaring a state of emergency, deploying National Guard troops, warning citizens of danger and leading the state's response. He also scored points for Louisiana by using his "network" time to remind the rest of America that it needs to repair America's wetlands.
Closer to home, New Orleans police and National Guard troops formed a seamless security blanket for those who stayed as well as those who evacuated. A total of nearly 3,000 cops and troops patrolled the streets. We are especially proud of the NOPD officers who put aside the bad memories of Katrina and provided superlative service this time around.
While evacuation and security improved tremendously since Katrina, the re-entry process was a mishmash of confusion no doubt the result of poor planning and even poorer communication. Mayor Nagin's idea of a "tiered" re-entry process struck many as unfair if not elitist, and that's assuming it could have been pulled off. While it makes sense to let essential responders medical personnel, certain city contractors and utility repair crews, among others back into the city first, the other "tiers" made no sense at all. Add to that the fact that few people seemed to know anything about this "plan" ahead of time, and it should have been foreseeable that it would fall flat, which it did. The mayor should develop a plan that meshes with the re-entry policies of surrounding parishes. Hopefully, he'll have such a plan before the next storm approaches.
Overall, the mayor should take a page from Gov. Jindal. Instead of shrill pronouncements about "the Mother of all storms," he should stick to the truth and find a better way to tell people that it's time to get out. Sure, it worked this time, but if people feel they've been lied to, many will ignore him next time.
And next time is what we all need to focus on now.