Weather Nerd

Nagin discusses possible evacuation plans

Alan Sullivan has posted an update on Tropical Storm Gustav, which Sullivan now believes may disintegrate over land, or take a far different course than currently envisioned by the National Hurricane Center. “The possibilities are many,” he writes, “but among the least plausible is a violent landfall at New Orleans.”A violent landfall at or near New Orleans, however, remains the official NHC forecast, so until that changes, I’m going to keep blogging about the possibility. Apropos of which, New Orleans Mayor (and Democratic superdelegate) Ray Nagin was interviewed on CNN this evening in Denver, shortly after Barack Obama’s official nomination. You can view a small portion of the interview on YouTube.Nagin is now headed back to his city to prepare for a possible encounter with Gustav, but he stopped first to chat with Wolf Blitzer & co. about the Big Easy’s preparations and evacuation plans. Among the points he made:

  • New Orleans is “ready to evacuate. The big question is, what shape are our levees in?” Nagin said he’s “cautiously optimistic” they can withstand the currently forecasted scenario — that is, a direct hit from a low-end Category 3 hurricane. 
  • Asked what he would tell New Orleans residents who were watching, Nagin said “make sure you have your evacuation plans in order,” that you’re in contact with your friends & loved ones and coordinate with them, and that you make sure your elderly neighbors have a means of evacuating as well. 
  • As suggested by the above, the city’s focus is now entirely on evacuation. There will be no “shelters of last resort,” as in 2005. Instead, the city will — if necessary — evacuate those who cannot get themselves out of town, starting 72 hours before any expected landfall. 
  • Mandatory evacuation will be ordered “if it’s higher than a Category 2” — by which he presumably means, if the 72-hour forecast calls for a landfalling storm above Cat. 2 — and/or if the storm surge is expected to be “higher than the levees.” 
  • As you can see in the YouTube clip, he said: “We have an evacuation plan that goes out into the neighborhoods and picks people up. We also have been registering people on our website, and calling into our 3-1-1 number, so we know where you are, and we can go out and get you.” When Anderson Cooper pointed out that only 7,000 people have registered, while as many as 30,000 may need help, Nagin said, “That’s part of the challenge going forward, but even the ones we have not identified, we will still go out into the communities, with the police officers, with their bullhorns, and alert everybody, and try and bring them in.” Asked whether there are buses and drivers to handle the evacuation this time around, Nagin said, “There’s buses. There’s drivers. There’s trains. There’s planes. There’s a whole different strategy for getting people out.”

As someone who has been (and remains) harshly critical of Nagin’s handling of the preparations for Hurricane Katrina three years ago, I’m impressed with his response to the threat of Gustav thus far. He and his administration appear to be much more “on the ball” this time around. Asked what he learned from Katrina, he said, “I’ve learned that it takes some effort to evacuate an entire city,” which suggests an unbelievable degree of criminally negligent stupidity on his part before Katrina — but hey, better late than never!(After the jump, some more gratuitous Nagin-bashing with regard to Katrina, because he made a couple of comments in his CNN interview that I can’t let go without a response.)I must say, it was galling to hear Mayor Nagin state that his biggest mistake in the run-up to Katrina was trusting the federal government to help out. Nagin pointed out that 1.3 million people evacuated New Orleans in 2005, and “only” 50,000 people were left behind; he said his mistake was assuming the government would come help those 50,000 stranded folks in a timely fashion after the storm. It is, of course, true that the feds screwed that up. But what’s galling is, Nagin appears not to recognize his own, even more indefensible screw-up.By failing to order a mandatory evacuation in a timely manner, and by failing to implement precisely the sort of aided-evacuation plans he is now talking about, Nagin played Russian roulette with those 50,000 citizens’ lives. If Katrina hadn’t weakened at the last minute and made a right-hand turn — neither of which were pre-ordained — a much, much higher percentage of those folks would have been killed in the storm. The flood would have been swifter, more severe, and accompanied by far stronger winds and waves. Those rooftops from which tens of thousands of people were rescued would have been fully underwater. Countless Katrina survivors would instead have drowned. As a result, there would have been no opportunity to blame the federal government for their subsequent hardships. They would already have been dead, because Nagin didn’t do his job in implementing the city’s evacuation plans.And make no mistake, there were evacuation plans. They just weren’t implemented, for some utterly mystifying reason. (In one of the more baffling episodes, Nagin admitted he had been reluctant to order a mandatory evacuation because he wasn’t sure if he had the legal authority to do so. Apparently, despite being the mayor of a city that’s below sea level and has always faced the ever-present danger of destruction by flood, and despite all the simulations and studies that had been done, Nagin had never bothered to ask his lawyers to look up this simple question, until the Saturday evening before landfall.) This isn’t something they only figured out after Katrina. It was clear back in 2005 what needed to happen. Nagin and his administration just didn’t do it.The implementation of a full-fledged evacuation plan as Katrina approached was obviously necessary, and this was clear in the moment — not just in hindsight — such that I, for one, was excoriating Nagin at the time on my blog for his failure to do his job. So, while it’s fantastic that he’s learned his lesson, it’s incredibly maddening to see him continuing to play the martyr, blaming the federal government while refusing to acknowledge that he himself put tens of thousands of lives at risk by failing to implement the plans that were contemporaneously, obviously necessary.[/rant]