Learning lessons the hard way

Alfred "Pappy" Brunet
July 30, 2009
Joseph Henry Elkins
August 3, 2009

If a hurricane threatens the Tri-parish area this year, will you evacuate? More and more, the answer from Tri-parish residents is “no.” If Hurricane Katrina taught us a lesson about taking hurricanes seriously, then Hurricane Gustav may be blamed for a lesson of a different kind.

Hurricane Gustav was the “perfect storm” for emergency preparedness officials. It came with ample warning, as the National Hurricane Center’s five-day forecast was within 50 miles of where the storm made landfall and the three-day forecast was within five miles. As a result, officials ordered a mandatory evacuation as early as Saturday, August 30.

It was a coincidence that the weekend corresponded with a major holiday – Labor Day. Since some insurance companies and FEMA offer reimbursement for evacuation expenses, many Tri-parish residents saw the evacuation order as a low-cost Labor Day vacation option, and they went.

Gustav triggered the largest evacuation in United States history. Over 3 million people living along the Gulf Coast fled the oncoming hurricane. As it made landfall on Labor Day near Cocodrie, many evacuees relaxed in hotel swimming pools or barbequed in parks, hundreds of miles away from south Louisiana … what happened next made many of them regret that decision.

Once in the Gulf, Gustav – predicted to make landfall as a strong Category 3 or weak Category 4 hurricane – gradually weakened. It was reduced to a Category 2 hurricane late on Aug. 31, and remained at that intensity until making landfall the next morning. Although the Tri-parish area escaped major devastation, electric outages were wide-spread across the region and officials saw empty streets as a way to accelerate repairs. State police and parish deputies closed roads leading into the Tri-parish area and prevented nonessential personnel from returning home.

Tempers began to flare as residents attempted to return after being told not to do so. While some local parishes allowed residents to return 48 hours after the storm’s Monday landfall, evacuees from Terrebonne Parish were told to stay away until Friday. Generators stood idle at some Terrebonne homes while food spoiled and damages worsened.

As a result, many former Gustav evacuees claimed to have learned their lesson and are preparing to ride out future storms – a decision that is understandable, yet rife with danger.

Although Gustav was a Category 2 hurricane, the Tri-parish area experienced major infrastructure damage. If it had made landfall as a Category 3 or 4, electricity, water and sewerage would have been out in the area for weeks and months, rather than days and weeks.

Although some gas stations with generators opened within 24 hours after Gustav, a stronger storm would have resulted in more damage to these stations, rendering some inoperable.

Competition for gasoline would have exhausted supplies. Gasoline-powered generators would have run out of gas and vehicles would have been idled.

With grocery stores unable to open or to be restocked, food would have become scarce. Water lines would have been contaminated for months and health services would have been virtually unavailable.

The Tri-parish area dodged a bullet. However, post-storm, former Gustav evacuees feel like they were the targets, and they are vowing not to evacuate again.

Parish emergency management officials need to take action now to prevent a future lesson – they need to assure residents that, after they evacuate, a more aggressive return policy will be established.

Although not the perfect situation, residents should be allowed to at least check on their property within 48 hours after a Category 2 storm. Current plans do not set a timeline for such an activity, but one should be established.

Residents need to know they can safeguard their property after a minimal hurricane, or they might risk not evacuating for a predicted major hurricane.

Hurricane Gustav taught us a lesson … but what lesson was learned and by whom holds the key to the next evacuation.