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



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  1. termite

    i know first hand about moving the elderly from nursing homes before a hurricane. it is an extremely difficult task and takes a tremendous amount of time. let me tell you, these folks do not travel light, there is much to consider – all of which their lives depend apon.

    it’s easy to say let’s get them on the bus early and send them to safety. the problem is they (the folks who runs these homes) are pretty much in the same boat as we are. they have to wait to see if they indeed should pack up all their residents and move them – keep in mind that this in itself is very taxing on these elderly folks. many of whom can not walk and are bed ridden. just getting everyone (staff and doctors included) on the bus is an ordeal and must be done if a strom is in fact coming this way.

    i don’t know what the answer is, i really don’t. but i do like your idea of a special lane in contra-flow.

    *there is a professor in New York who is doing a study on all the elderly who died as a direct result of Katrina. this documentation/study is being done because so many were not counted for, acknowledged. the number is far greater than most know – and of course he needs all the documentation on each person from their family and doctors to be part of this list. you have my email if you would like his name and number.

    sorry i’m so long winded today. thank you for this post louis.

  2. JAUG

    We lost the Hansens (Sno-Blitz) right after Katrina. Evacuation is hard, harder still on our elderly.

    A special lane would be great, but if nothing else shouldn’t there be someone on the contra route that offers emergency medical care?

  3. Michelle

    Our neighbor Miss Marie (Marie Catherine Ballay) passed away from a massive heart attack on the 13th of September at the age of 76. She had evacuated and had the usual long trips both ways. I firmly believe that the stress and the sitting caused her death.

  4. SugarMama

    Thanks Louis, for stating the truth so brutally and so beautifully. That needed to be said.

    The Gustav evacuation also claimed precious lives in the form of traffic accidents. My heart is broken over the death of musician Bruce Daigrepont’s parents. I especially remember his mama, encouraging people to get up and dance at the Sunday Fais-Do-Do’s at Tipitina’s. What a sweet lady, and what a tremendous loss.

    As for Katrina, that one is still claiming victims and will continue to shorten lives for years to come.

  5. I’ve commented on this on the Katrina: An UnNatural Disaster blog:

    There are so many hidden factors at play, like loss f life for instance…

    Thanks Louis, as usual I find you putting up things I wish I had written!

  6. Dr. A

    Thank you for this post about our elderly population and the hardship of evacuating for them and those who care for them….this has been an (anecdotally) well known but little documented aspect of evacuations…..
    Did I see something in the TP about an increase in admissions to area hospitals for DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis) (caused by inactivity on long car trips) or did I just hear about it on the grapevine?
    And another anecdotal report: a friend’s mother was rushed to Ochsner this morning suffering a stroke; hope she will be ok; the evacuation and aftermath have been harder for her this time.

  7. The grim reality of old age and dependence on others, simply to live, is one we all face, in ourselves and/or our loved ones. Often, our hopes are to make it less difficult for others, and plan as best we can for ourselves.

    Thank you, Louis, for this deeply insightful and respectful piece. Without reminders such as this, many brilliant influences, teachers, role models and mentors can so easliy be forgotten in the haste of emergencies like evacuation.

    As a city that deals with this annually, we have a long way to go in this respect. Thanks for getting it started…

  8. Termite, thanks as always for your insights. I really appreciate it!

    JAUG, I too was saddened by the passing of the Hansens. Like Miss Ruthie, they were a New Orleans institution.

    Michele, I ‘m so sorry to hear about Miss Marie. Our elderly neighbors are so precious to us.

    Sugar Mama; it is so tragic and shocking about Mr. Daigrepont’s parents. And I agree that the death toll from the 2005 storms may not be complete for years. All we can do is keep on like we’ve been; doing our best, working hard to get back to where we were. What else can we do/

    Loki — Thanks for that link to your piece. When I wrote this one I wasn’t even taking into account about evacuation-related traffic accidents…

    Dr. A, I hope your friend’s mother makes out ok. I hadn’t heard of the DVT issue, but it sounds like yet another factor to take into serious consideration with these evacuation plans. Thanks for mentioning it!

    Lord David, as always I appreciate your kind words and thoughtful perspective. Thanks.


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