New Orleans Mayor Nagin Develops Pioneering Evacuation Plan
September 15, 2008
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has created a new model for effective evacuation of a major city and enacted a pioneering plan during Hurricane Gustav to evacuate citizens who could not leave on their own.
Nagin was in Denver at the Democratic National Convention when meteorological models first began to suggest that Hurricane Gustav might be headed for his Gulf Coast city.
A veteran of Hurricane Katrina, Nagin knew the impact that a storm carrying strong winds and high storm surges could have on a city. New Orleans is, after all, still recovering from Katrina and the failure of the federal levees, which left 80 percent of the city under water for weeks, necessitated a mandatory evacuation and took hundreds of lives.
So Nagin made a quick adjustment in plans. He left Denver early – he did not get to see Democratic Presidential Nominee Barak Obama give his historic acceptance speech – and flew back to New Orleans to begin making preparations. Working with his team, he would have to decide whether to evacuate and make the many choices that come before and after such a determination.
“It was amazing that exactly three years after Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, we were again preparing to evacuate all of our citizens,” Nagin said.
This time, it was August 29 when Nagin signed an emergency declaration order for the city. Forecasters predicted the storm would head directly for New Orleans and would reach the city as a Category 4 or 5, with storms as strong as 131 to 155 miles per hour or more. Nagin warned citizens they might be asked to leave.
On August 30, Nagin made it official. He announced that that a mandatory evacuation would become effective on the West Bank of the Mississippi River at 8 a.m. the following morning; for the East Bank, it would become effective at noon.
But even before the mandatory order, the city began to implement its City Assisted Evacuation Plan, a tiered approach to evacuating citizens who cannot leave on their own because of financial, medical or other reasons.
Beginning 72 hours before a Category 3 or larger storm is projected to make landfall, the City Assisted Evacuation program uses city buses to shuttle residents from 17 designated pick-up points to the Union Passenger Terminal. Ideally, residents would have registered long in advance using the City’s 311 non-emergency hotline. But those who did not pre-register could simply show up at a pick-up point and board a bus.
In addition to taking residents from the designated locations, the city also arranged for para-transit vehicles and ambulances to go to the homes of residents with serious medical issues or mobility constraints. While most other residents were evacuated from the Union Passenger Terminal by hundreds of buses, those with special medical concerns were transported by Amtrak.
Residents were transported to shelters in northern Louisiana and the Southeastern United States that had been designated by the State of Louisiana. In total, more than 18,000 citizens were evacuated using the City Assisted Evacuation Program. Overall, all but 10,000 of the city’s estimated 328,000 residents evacuated following Mayor Nagin’s order. An estimated 1.9 million people evacuated from the region.
Hurricane Gustav was downgraded to a Category 2 storm by the time it reached New Orleans and it spared the city the obvious physical damage that followed Katrina. But 140,000 customers were left without electricity, the health care system was not immediately functioning and other services were lacking. By September 4 when New Orleans was again open to all of its citizens, most electricity has been restored and other services were fully functioning.
The City Assisted Evacuation Program successfully returned to New Orleans the citizens who took advantage of it. Mayor Nagin has been praised in local and national medial for his committed, ground-breaking work to evacuate and ensure the re-entry of New Orleans’ most vulnerable citizens.
“We learned some valuable lessons with this evacuation,” said Nagin. “We’ve identified the parts of our process that can be strengthened and we have determined the areas where we need specific intervention on the part of our state and federal partners. And we also know now that our levees can withstand a Category 2 storm.”
Nagin continues to urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete the 100-year flood protection for the New Orleans region by 2010, rather than by 2011 as the Corps has projected.