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New Orleans Under Hurricane Warning, But Will “Shelter In Place”

August 26th, 2012 - 3:14 pm

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In a bizarrely low-key press conference that seemed more focused on calming residents’ “anxiety” and vaguely telling them to “be prepared” (and then making of a series of mundane announcements about municipal matters like trash collection and parking restrictions) than on advising them to take specific, concrete steps commensurate to the risk of a possibly major hurricane potentially making a direct hit on America’s most hurricane-vulnerable city starting in about 48 hours, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu did his best Ray Nagin impression Sunday, announcing a no-evacuation, “shelter in place” plan that suggests a stunning level of confidence that a worst-case scenario won’t happen, at a time when it remains, meteorologically speaking, very much in play.

The possibility that residents would be “sheltering in place” in a “place” the could, in the worst-case scenario, be swallowed up by the Gulf of Mexico, was not mentioned.

Mayor Landrieu said he did not anticipate announcing any revisions to the plan — such as a decision to order evacuations, a possibility he explicitly downplayed — until around noon tomorrow, by which time the onset of bad weather would be around 24 hours away. Despite reams of pre-Katrina literature indicating that it takes 48 to 72 hours to evacuate New Orleans in the event of a major hurricane threatening a direct hit, and despite the experience of 2005′s rushed and incomplete evacuation so flawed that it left 50,000 people to be rescued from rooftops and such by the Coast Guard, Mayor Landrieu apparently thinks 24 hours is enough time to make an evacuation work, if one is needed.

Okay then.

I want to be fair here. I’m neither a meteorologist nor a New Orleans official, planner or expert. Perhaps Landrieu is right, and I’m wrong. Perhaps New Orleans now has plans that will allow it to effectively evacuate in 24 hours’ time. My understanding has been that that’s basically impossible, but again, I’m concededly not an expert. It’s certainly true that, by midday tomorrow, we’ll have more and better information about Isaac’s projected path and intensity at landfall, both of which remain maddeningly difficult to pin down right now. So if it’s reasonably possible to wait until tomorrow morning to make the call, that would certainly be preferable. I’m just not so sure it’s reasonably possible. I thought the decision needed to be made today, despite the admittedly imperfect information and the very significant chance of a false alarm.

Even if an evacuation can reasonably be begun tomorrow if necessary, Mayor Landrieu certainly should have done more to prepare residents now for the possibility. In contrast to Governor Bobby Jindal, who explicitly advised residents of low-lying coastal areas to prepare today for a likely evacuation tomorrow (and even urged them to voluntarily leave tonight), Landrieu was maddeningly vague in telling residents what to “prepare” for. He seemed to be advising them to “prepare” to “shelter in place” — in other words, to stock up on essentials, etc. — than to prepare for possible evacuations. Moreover, the city government’s relatively nonchalant attitude at present guarantees that most private employers will take a similar attitude, meaning lots of residents with jobs won’t feel free to take off work tomorrow to evacuate.

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