Yelling ‘FIRE’ in the Theater, part 1

Sep 4, 2008 by

The next time, my family will stay

by James O’Byrne, Staff Writer, The Times-Picayune

Wednesday September 03, 2008, 11:55 AM

Heavy traffic lines Interstate 10 eastbound as motorist make their way out of the path of Hurricane Gustav on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008 in Mobile, Ala. Alabama.

I’m sure that Gov. Bobby Jindal, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Mayor Ray Nagin, Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard and all the other public officials mean well. I’m sure they thought it was a good idea to panic people into leaving. I’m sure they believe it’s in the public’s best interest to stay away while they clean up.

But the evacuation of the metro area in advance of Gustav, and the subsequent policies regarding re-entry, will guarantee that in the next major storm to strike the region — which may occur in a matter of days or weeks — many more people will be at risk. The slightest bit of vision, combined with an open ear to the anger and frustration of this hurricane-weary citizenry, would make the government officials responsible realize that they helped to make this happen.

Under Louisiana law, it is still legally not possible to forcibly remove people from their property and make them leave in advance of an approaching storm. So every evacuation becomes an implicit contract between the officials and the public. You tell us the truth, and the risks as the scientists and forecasters see it. We’ll try to make good decisions for the sake of our families.

When that contract is broken, as I believe it was in the case of Gustav, then the tradeoff is that fewer people leave the next time. Here’s three rules that public officials must follow if they want people to evacuate in significant numbers again:

Rule No. 1: Don’t exaggerate and force a panic. It is not supposed to be the business of public officials to panic people with disinformation, misinformation, or downright lies. To call Gustav “the mother of all storms” 900 miles wide, as Mayor Nagin did, was demonstrably untrue, and an insult to Katrina and all who suffered through that storm. Gustav had hurricane force winds extending 50 miles from its center. Katrina, by comparison, had hurricane force winds extending 105 miles from the center. It was 50 percent more powerful, and carved a path of destruction more than twice as wide as Gustav.

Mayor Nagin on Saturday night, while foreshadowing his plan to call for a mandatory evacuation on Sunday, proclaimed that everyone should “leave now.” It worked, but how shocking was it that Interstate 10 east and Interstate 59 became complete gridlock, and a place of suffering for people trying to escape the storm? At the time Nagin made his breathless proclamation, the National Hurricane Center had already issued an advisory describing how forces of shear and dry air were inhibiting Gustav’s strength, and how all of the computer models — all of them — were showing the storm moving west of New Orleans.

To one degree or another, this pattern repeated itself across the metro area. Public officials succeeded in panicking the populace into fleeing — this time. But such a tack will not succeed as well the next. There are those who will say that people must heed the warning to leave, because even though Gustav missed New Orleans, the next one might not. It could be so much worse the next time, they argue. That may be true.

But the one commodity that is absolutely essential in communication between officialdom and its populace in times of crisis is credibility. It was cast aside this time in favor of hyperbole and exaggeration calculated to induce panic. The fact that it worked so well this time almost guarantees that the next time it won’t.

Rule No. 2: Don’t respond to people’s criticisms and complaints about how things went by telling them this is how it’s supposed to be. Sixteen hours to Birmingham, 23 hours to Tuscaloosa, 14 hours to Pensacola. In many cases, these horrific journeys were made with infants and the elderly, trapped on the interstate, blocked from exiting for hours and hours, with no hope of food, gas or bathroom facilities. Yet when public officials, standing in their air-conditioned Emergency Operations Centers, were questioned about what went wrong, they responded that everything worked well, and this is how it’s supposed to be.

Back to that contract. If people don’t actually have to leave, and they are telling their public officials that this evacuation did not work well, the correct response to that message is not, “You’re wrong, it did.” Because if there is no hope of improvement in the time it takes to get out of harm’s way, then the next time many thousands won’t go.

Rule No. 3: You have to let people return to their property as soon as humanly possible. Yes, I know that in many cases, there is still some modicum of danger on the streets, what with tree limbs and power poles and all manner of difficulties, just as it’s dangerous to live here in the first place, dangerous to evacuate, dangerous to return on highways clogged with angry and frustrated citizens.

News flash: We know it’s dangerous to live here. We accept the possibility of no gas, no power, no readily available food. We’re Katrina survivors. We’ll figure it out.

But if the enduring image of Gustav is a U.S. soldier with an M-16 denying a citizen the right to return to his home, then you can pretty much write off the next “mandatory” evacuation. Leaving your home in advance of a storm is an extraordinarily stressful, difficult, traumatic and expensive proposition. The one thing that must be honored is that people must be allowed to return to their homes as soon as humanly possible.

As a journalist, I spent the past two days driving around reporting on the storm. And by Tuesday afternoon, this city was as safe as it needed to be. Indeed, all those tree branches and debris would be picked up and stacked neatly on the curb by lunchtime on Wednesday if people had been allowed to come home.

I fully appreciate the risks of letting my family stay. But I have to weigh that risk against the alternate risks, of getting trapped in an endless evacuation traffic jam, of being stranded on a highway far from help, of not being able to return in a timely manner, to secure our property and come back to as much of a normal life as possible.

New Orleans is my home. I love it, and I choose to keep living here. But if you are a public official who wants me to leave for the next storm, then you have to hear what I am telling you. It’s time to rewrite the contract.


This aricle is reposted from NOLA.COM because I wanted you to read it before it gets pulled. – LD

Related Posts


Share This