One of the biggest misconceptions about Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods was that New Orleanians did not evacuate in sufficient numbers when told to do so. That was not the case. According to a study by the National Academy of Engineering, 80 to 90 percent of citizens did leave the city — in part because of lessons learned in 1998 during the Hurricane Georges evacuation and in 2004, when the Hurricane Ivan evacuation became the first time Louisianans used the highway "contraflow" plan.
The Katrina levee failures disproportionately affected the poor, the elderly and those with special conditions (illness, disabilities). Many of them had no way to evacuate, though some chose to stay behind. They accounted for a high percentage of the flood-related deaths in New Orleans after the city narrowly averted a direct hit from Katrina. (The deaths in Mississippi were due mainly to the effects of the storm itself.)
This week marks the beginning of the annual hurricane season, which begins June 1 and ends Nov. 30. Last week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued its annual forecast for the Pacific and Atlantic hurricane seasons, predicting a "near-normal" or "below-normal" season for the tropical Atlantic in 2014. The reason, as in the past, is the expected El Nino weather pattern, which inhibits tropical storm formation.
NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan said in a statement, "Even though we expect El Nino to suppress the number of storms this season, it's important to remember it takes only one land-falling storm to cause a disaster." New Orleanians also know it doesn't take a strong storm to wreak havoc; a slow-moving tropical storm can batter the city as much as a hurricane.
It's therefore vital for Gulf Coast residents to have a hurricane plan — with contingencies for leaving town or hunkering down if need be. This is the time to discuss with family, friends and neighbors what you'll do. Check your stockpiled supplies (including a manual can opener). Make sure you have fresh packs of batteries for flashlights and battery-powered radios or TVs. Eat the canned goods you've stocked and replace them with new ones. Stock up on bottled water for drinking as well as washing — the guideline is at least 1 gallon per person per day, with a three-day minimum. (Keeping wet wipes in the house and car makes good sense.)
Other essentials include a tool kit, medicines, fire extinguisher, large garbage bags and a change of clothes and shoes. Keep cash on hand. Pet owners need a supply of food, a carrier and proof of up-to-date vaccinations. Find out if your shelter of choice takes pets — but under no circumstances stay put during a mandatory evacuation because you aren't sure what to do with your pets. Get out and take them with you.
The city's website, www.ready.nola.gov, has lots of helpful advice about hurricanes and allows you to set up emergency alerts by email, phone or text.
You can learn more at the "Hello Hurricane Season Summit" June 1, an annual event by the nonprofit organization Evacuteer.org, which assists residents who need help in case of an evacuation. From 2 p.m.-4 p.m. that day, the group will hold 17 training sessions around the city for volunteers. To find a location near you and to sign up to help, go to http://community.evacuteer.org/june-1-training-events. Then, from 4 p.m.-7 p.m. on June 1, Evacuteer.org will hold a community event at Armstrong Park where attendees can learn about the city's assisted evacuation plan, get more information and ask questions about hurricanes.
For a list of Evacuspots (places where buses will transport those needing help), visit the city website at www.nola.gov/ready/evacuspots/map. There are 17 Evacuspots scattered across the city, four of which are designed for seniors. Those with special needs, certain medical conditions or limited mobility that may prevent them from getting to an Evacuspot by themselves should register with the city in advance. To do so, call the city's 311 help line, or register online at www.nola.gov/ready/health.
While the memories of Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath are indelibly etched in the minds of those who were here in 2005, the influx of new residents means there are plenty of people who have never experienced a hurricane or an evacuation. A major hurricane (category 3 or greater) has not hit the U.S. in nine years (Hurricane Wilma, in 2005, was the last one), but the old motto still holds true: Be prepared — and don't be afraid to ask for help. There are no dumb questions when it comes to hurricanes, just unprepared people.