Did I hear someone cry ‘Wolf’?
Answer this question: “Would you have left New Orleans with an enormous Category 4 hurricane bearing down on the city?”So why didn’t all of the people of New Orleans who had transportation and means get out while the going was good? There were so many who had a choice, and chose to stay: the people who rented rooms in downtown hotels, or the ones rescued from rooftops, or the ones removed from their attics. Yet for those of us who have lived in New Orleans, it’s not a total mystery. In 1998, my family evacuated for Hurricane Georges. We took all of our cherished photographs, essential records, computer, insurance materials and video camera. We carefully packed favorite clothes and items precious for their sentimental value. We removed everything from the floor that might be damaged by flood waters and placed artwork in an interior room. In other words, we packed as if a hurricane might really come and devastate our home.Then we sat in our car for hours in long frustrating lines of bumper-to-bumper traffic, and paid an exorbitant bill for a room in a mediocre hotel that would take both us and our Shetland sheepdog. We returned in three days. Everything except the food in our freezer was just as we had left it. One week after we returned from the Georges evacuation, a storm came up suddenly and without advance notice. It was not a hurricane and I don’t remember its name, but it dumped enough water on New Orleans to flood much of the city, and require the rescue of my son and daughter from water-logged schools. For Ivan, last year’s big threat, my family left once more, while our next-door neighbors chose not to evacuate. After a grueling 13-hour car ride, we arrived at a Dallas hotel at 3 a.m., only to return days later to an undamaged city. This year’s hurricane season blew in with intensity. Cindy, billed merely as a tropical storm, surprised the meteorologists (who did not even suggest that residents take in their outdoor furniture), by bringing hurricane force winds to the city. Cindy hit at about 4 a.m. and most of us, except those who had trees go through their roof, slept through it. The wind damage we witnessed the following morning was shocking. Soon after Cindy, Hurricane Dennis threatened the city. Aaron Broussard, the mayor of adjoining Jefferson Parish, called for an evacuation of low-lying areas. Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, criticized Broussard’s premature reaction. Nagin turned out to be right; Dennis veered away in time for New Orleans to stay put. A lull in hurricane activity followed. The active season predicted by the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center was turning into a bust. New Orleanians laughed as we remarked to each other that meteorologists never get anything right. Then came Katrina. Even before an evacuation order comes from the mayor, most New Orleanians either decide to leave, or to ride it out. It’s a decision based on personal evaluation of risks. If you have a sturdy house, no children, and don’t believe in predictions of dire emergency, you stay. (Some, like essential workers at hospitals and police and fire officials, are required to stay.) With a one-story home and children, we left town for Katrina. Still, we packed as if leaving for a few days of vacation in Texas. I took a week’s worth of prescription medications, shorts, t-shirts, and a bathing suit. After all, nothing had ever happened to prevent us from returning before. We had friends and relatives who decided to ride out the storm. Of course, they, like all New Orleanians were familiar with the “doomsday scenario.” At the start of every hurricane season, our local paper, The Times-Picayune, publishes a huge article about it, asking, “What if a hurricane came in from the east and dumped Lake Pontchartrain onto the city?” But it always seemed akin to asking, “What if I won the lottery?” What are the chances – 1 in 10 million? In New Orleans, someone was always crying wolf when there was no wolf, and when the wolf was standing in our backyard, no one cried anything at all. That’s why we have so little with us. That’s why many people stayed. Now, why some refused to leave after the levees broke … that’s another story. Pre-Katrina, Julie E. Schwartz was the editor of a bi-monthly newspaper in New Orleans, La. She now resides in Summit County.
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