New Orleans evacuation breathtaking in its scope

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 31, 2008 

NEW ORLEANS — It took Hurricane Katrina and its scenes of mass death and chaos to transform the place known as "the city that care forgot'' into the city that can't forget.

Long before Hurricane Gustav hit Monday, the people of New Orleans took to cars, buses, planes, trains and even choppers in a mass exodus that stood in stark contrast to the botched and lackadaisical evacuation before Katrina swamped the city in 2005.

Not only did the citizens remember the lessons of Katrina — so did the local, state and federal governments. They forcefully and frequently broadcast the message: Get out.

Message received. More than 200,000 people fled the city in 12 hours, said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who called the vacant streets ''eerie."

Cardell Haynes and his nine family members were among the many who wanted out but didn't have the means to simply drive away. They lugged five suitcases 10 blocks in the sticky heat from their New Orleans home to the city bus station, one of the main evacuation pick-up points.

Haynes and his family opted to skip the first bus leaving for Shreveport so they could all stay together.

"You know, after Katrina if you got split up it might be months before you saw anyone again. We got little ones. No way," said Haynes, pulling a suitcase with his little sister's white, stained stuffed bear strapped to it.

Some stayed by choice.

Those like Juan Cruz were stuck by circumstance.

"We don't know what to do," said Cruz, a migrant worker from Oaxaca, Mexico, who came here for post-Katrina construction work. He stayed here Sunday, largely unaware of the evacuation because he and three other migrant apartment-mates have no radio or TV.

Cruz's bicycle blew a tire on Lafayette Avenue when he went out to find food with $20. The store was closed.

"We don't have food. Nothing," he said.

Cruz stood out on the streets of New Orleans because so few people stood on them. The most common pedestrians wore fatigues and carried M-16s. The soldiers were all but absent before Katrina hit. Now they're all over the city.

More than 8,000 nursing home residents were shipped out by the state. At least seven hospitals were emptied. The remaining 20 were partially evacuated to avoid a repeat of 2005, when hospitals and nursing homes became islands of misery amid the floodwaters.

It's still dangerous, though, and three people might already have died from the stress of being moved from a hospital intensive care unit, officials said. And flooding is likely, since officials say Gustav appears on track to hit New Orleans harder than Katrina. West side levees are particularly vulnerable.

About 1,000 special-needs patients and 100 more critically sick people were evacuated. Though the state had already ordered up more than 700 ambulances from private companies and other governments, it wasn't enough.

So Jindal and his health and hospital director, Alan Levine, came up with a plan at 2 a.m. Sunday to move the patients by C-130 cargo planes operated by the Louisiana and Texas Air National Guards.

"I've never seen anything like the scope of this evacuation — really an entire city," said Levine, who oversaw Florida's hospital system under Gov. Jeb Bush when eight hurricanes hit the state in two years.

Levine hammered out the final details with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on the tarmac of Lake Front Airport on Sunday afternoon. Chertoff promised to have as many patients as possible evacuated on planes and choppers before the storm hit.

"You might have to jam them in a little bit," Chertoff said. The sight of the de facto head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency taking charge on the ground was unseen in 2005. So were FEMA SUVs, which zipped along vacant streets Sunday.

"What you're seeing is an ability to empty out a danger zone much more effectively than before," Chertoff said.

Mayor Ray Nagin was even more forceful. Criticized for issuing an evacuation order too late in 2005, Nagin warned that Gustav could be ''the storm of the century." To encourage more evacuations, the city closed the Superdome so to prevent a repeat of the chaotic refuge of last resort, as in Katrina.

In the Upper Ninth Ward, 54-year-old resident Anthony Joseph wasn't buying. He weathered Katrina and Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and said he didn't think this storm was as bad as the "hype'' from Nagin and others.

"They're scaring the hell out of people," he said. "The city, state and local government messed up so bad in Katrina that they want to make this the make-up no one will forget."

Caputo and Ovalle are reporters for the Miami Herald. Branch writes for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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