Friday, September 19, 2008

The First Re-vacuee

Union Passenger Terminal
September, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

It seems long ago now, July 9th, when kids played homeless men, old ladies and mothers with children during a dry-run of the City's Assisted Evacuation Plan (CAEP). Afterwards, everyone involved not-so-quietly hoped we'd never have to do it for real.

Hurricane Gustav's path became apparent on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. That cruel irony heightened some New Orleanians' senses--eyes, ears and the little hairs on their necks--enough to pack up and leave town three years to the day they saw their City drown.
Over the next two days, nearly two million residents fled New Orleans and Southern Louisiana. Part of that number were 18,000 New Orleanians who used the first no-kidding rendition of the CAEP.

They were New Orleans most vulnerable citizens.

A homeless man with one shoe. A mother with five kids under eight. An 80-year old married couple.

Thousands representing the family-unit in poor, Urban America came through the turnstiles. I never quite realized how matriarchal it was.

Great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers, and sisters towed small children.

Sometimes family units would be 16 people. They'd often have a single spokesperson. It was usually the most senior woman unless she was extremely elderly. Family after family came through that way. And off they went.

Several hundred homeless residents came through.

Nearly 1,000 Latinos with little English skills came through and bi-lingual translators assured them they wouldn't be hassled about their residency status.

The spectrum of evacuees was large. Many evacuees were run-of-the-mill New Orleanians, who, for some reason or another, have not adopted the American "I need a car" mindset.

My favorite group was the 20 international young people who work on temporary visas as servers and busboys, linen changers and line cooks in French Quarter restaurants and hotels. They arrived with huge traveling backpacks and "What did we get ourselves into?" looks on their faces.

We waved and well-wished several people I'd known pre-evacuation, including a clerk at the Walgreens beneath my apartment and a retired bookkeeper who volunteers at City Hall.

The planes, trains and buses took evacuees to cities and towns in northern Louisiana like Shreveport as well as shelters and Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas. The process took just over 35 hours to complete. Residents had 17 different pick-up locations where they could catch a ride to the main transportation hub for the evacuation.

The local city-bus operators shuffled thousands from the different neighborhood pickup points to the Union Passenger Terminal. Special needs citizens were given door to door service.

Once the UPT shut its doors about 12 hours before Gustav made landfall, it looked ready to resume Amtrak and Greyhound service. A City employee who worked the Superdome during Katrina said one of the CAEP's litmus tests of success was the appearance of the UPT after the last train headed to Memphis.

When we left, I told him I'd be happy to eat a bag lunch on the floor.

Larman Sparkman's left foot hit New Orleans' soil last Thursday, making him the first returned resident in New Orleans historic and unprecedented assisted evacuation. There wasn't a welcoming committee waiting for Sparkman and the people he'd spent the past week with, just a few people who happened to be on sight at New Orleans' Union Passenger Terminal planning for the first of the evacuee arrivals to begin the following day.

Sparkman (pictured in white) and 26 returned others became the impromptu trail-blazers of an elaborate plan that, by and large was a success. The measurement stick: the evacuation would have saved several lives if Hurricane Gustav had actually carried the bite forecasters feared.
There are three camps with observations about the treatment of City Assisted evacuees once they arrived at shelters.

Some evacuees said they were treated miserably. Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor and other social activists are protesting alleged inhumane shelters in northern Louisiana.

Quigley volunteered during the evacuation and more than once he told me how well he thought the plan was working.

Shelter-condition protesters came to City Hall on Tuesday. As residents of Galveston and other Texas communities deal with Hurricane Ike devastation and as several southern Louisiana parishes are still in states of emergency, the timing seemed off. There is no doubt a time and a place is needed for those conversations, however.

Others said they'd had pleasant experiences and would definitely use the service again.

Finally, there were accounts from people like Gloria Ivory, 64. She wasn't upset by the conditions or the treatment at the shelter in Knoxville, Tenn. She was "embarrassed" by her fellow New Orleanians that fought, stole and were disruptive while in Knoxville.

"I doubt they'd ever take us back," Ivory said. "I don't blame them."

Gustav missed New Orleans and the City was largely spared minus the week-long, city-wide power outages.

Several scenarios and replays, reflections and "lets work this out" discussions have and will continue to occur while preparing for the next hurricane. The biggest fear for us all, however, is that many evacuees who returned weary, beleaguered and bleary-eyed from Gustav will choose to stay for the next storm.

Sparkman said he'd do it again. Beverly Mitchell, the volunteer at City Hall, said the same.



Photos: Robert X. Fogarty, Julie Plonk

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