death by evacuation

Sep 17, 2008 by


Today I read Gambit Weekly’s online obituary of Ruth Grace Moulon, more famously known as Ruthie the Duck Lady, formerly known as Ruthie the Duck Girl, and known to friends and neighbors simply as Miss Ruthie.

Gambit included one not-so-minor detail that the Times-Picayune left out, or perhaps did not know at the time of their earlier publication:

“Her doctor said Ruthie’s death was directly related to the stress of evacuation.”

This little sentence is very important, and we all need to really think about it, long and hard.

Although it is not a thing that very many of us like to discuss openly, these mass evacuations are dangerous. Especially for the elderly and infirm. We don’t like to talk about the danger of evacuations because everyone knows that hurricanes are much more dangerous. And in 2005 we all got a good schooling on what happens if we fail to evacuate nursing homes properly, effectively, or at all. But still, mass evacuations are dangerous. It’s just the truth. We need to be able to admit that before we can even begin to make them less so.

Now, I will never imply that nursing homes should not evacuate their residents when a storm like Gustav is approaching the city. They certainly should. But we need to find a better, safer way to do it.

We also need to be more honest about what constitutes a storm-related fatality. Miss Ruthie was very ill at the time of the evacuation. She might not have lived much longer anyway – but now we’ll never know. How many other elderly folks died too soon as a direct result of that evacuation, or other evacuations? Are these deaths “not storm related” because the victims didn’t drown in their own attics? A hastened death is a hastened death. If the death came sooner than it otherwise might have, the death is storm-related. This can be debated, but it’s really pretty simple. Evacuations shouldn’t kill people.

I have heard of many such deaths as a result of the 2005 storm, including the death of the mother of a good friend of mine. These are old folks who lived their whole lives in New Orleans, sometimes never having set foot outside of the city – only to draw their last breath in a strange city, far from home. It’s a terrifying fate, and why so many of our elderly refuse to leave in the first place. And not even having their deaths being counted for the tragedy that it is – gone too soon, due to a monster storm. Storm-related death. The very least we can do is call this what it is. It is disrespectful to do otherwise.

With these evacuations, it is indeed important to get as many people out as possible. But with the elderly and infirm, we need to combine quantity with quality.

Perhaps these evacuation plans can include a way of making the trip safer, smoother and quicker for our elderly citizens. Maybe we can coordinate nursing home evacuations to occur during a specific window of time, a window that includes a special lane in contra-flow for nursing home buses and cars with handicapped license plates. Sort of like an HOV lane. A way to keep these folks from being stuck in traffic for many hours in the heat, breathing exhaust fumes and fretting as they do, a way to get them to their destination in a few hours instead of the better part of a day.

I’m not blaming anyone. I don’t want to play that game. But I wonder if these tragic deaths can somehow be avoided, or at least lessened. And I would like very much for them to be counted for what they are; not swept under the rug, not ignored, not forgotten. Counted. Acknowledged. Addressed. Shown all due respect and love without hesitation or excuse.

These shortened lives do matter. Even if they are only being shortened by a month or a week or a day – it is too much. These are our mothers, our fathers, our grandparents, our teachers, our life mentors. These are the people who gave us everything we’ve got; our culture, our livelihoods, our sense of humor, our sense of dignity, our zest for life itself. These are not disposable lives; they are treasures to us; our living history and our blood. They are where we came from, and who we will one day be. We owe them a lot, and we owe them better.

– Louis Maistros



Related Posts

Share This