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How New Orleans' Evacuation Plan Fell Apart
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How New Orleans' Evacuation Plan Fell Apart

Katrina & Beyond

How New Orleans' Evacuation Plan Fell Apart

How New Orleans' Evacuation Plan Fell Apart
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Laura Sullivan reviews how the evacuation plans for the city of New Orleans fell apart even before Hurricane Katrina hit.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

After Hurricane Katrina, around 100,000 people were trapped inside New Orleans, unable to escape for days. The evacuation plans for the city fell apart even before the storm hit, as NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

New Orleans city officials had an emergency evacuation plan. For those with cars, head north. All freeway traffic would be one-way out of town. For those who couldn't get out on their own, Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell says city buses would pick them up.

Ms. CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL (New Orleans City Council): We had stops throughout the city for people who did not have a means or a way, and they were advised to bring sleeping bags and three days of provision and water.

SULLIVAN: The plan says the buses would drive two hours north of the city, past a highway called I-12. But a day before the hurricane struck, the city veered from that plan. The roads were clogged with traffic from the million people evacuating on their own. So down at the city's Office of Emergency Preparedness, Councilwoman Hedge-Morrell says officials made a decision: Better avoid the traffic and send the people on the buses somewhere closer to wait out the storm.

Ms. HEDGE-MORRELL: What we figured at that point--the city made a decision--the Office of Emergency Preparedness made a decision that rather than try to get stuck in that traffic evacuating these people, they brought them to the Superdome. But the intention was that as soon as Katrina passed, they were going to bus them to shelters past I-12.

SULLIVAN: That decision quickly became a critical mistake and turned the Superdome, the city's shelter of last resort, into a refuge for everyone. Then after the storm, when the levees broke, thousands more came. And the city buses, meant to take them to proper shelters, were underwater.

But New Orleans officials weren't the only ones to miscalculate. Joe Donchess directs the Louisiana Nursing Home Association. Two days before the storm hit he told all the homes in the area to evacuate, but ultimately, he says, it's up to each home to decide for itself.

Mr. JOE DONCHESS (Director, Louisiana Nursing Home Association): Nursing homes have to more or less play God in deciding how are we going to be most--the most severely damaged? By evacuating people on buses? Or do we shelter in place, hoping that the storm will miss?

SULLIVAN: Only 15 nursing homes evacuated. Thirty-seven did not. Then there was FEMA. The federal agency waited until after the storm to arrange for buses. Sally Snead(ph) is an executive with Kerry Meetings & Events(ph), the country's largest transportation company. She says FEMA called at midnight on Monday, almost a full day after the storm, to ask for 200 buses.

Ms. SALLY SNEAD (Executive, Kerry Meetings & Events): That's what started the process, and then over the course of the next two days the numbers grew, you know, from 200 to 355 to 500, up to 1,100 buses.

SULLIVAN: Snead says finding 200 buses quickly is doable. Finding 1,100 is a challenge.

Ms. SNEAD: It takes a couple days; especially at last minute. I mean, it's one thing when you're planning an event, you know, where you're going to need, you know, hundreds of motor coaches. You typically--you've got months and months to get that done.

SULLIVAN: And then there was the state. After the storm hit, it sent hundreds of buses to a mall parking lot outside the city. The plan was to evacuate the overcrowded and now dangerous Superdome. Instead, bus drivers like Bill Yant(ph), who drove his bus down from Bossier Parish, sat and waited.

Mr. BILL YANT (Bus Driver): We could not, due to security, take those buses into where they wanted to go, 'cause the night had fallen and all rescue operations for buses were stopped at nightfall. So we were there, but we just couldn't get to where we needed to go.

SULLIVAN: David Bowman(ph) tried to help. Normally in charge of Workforce Development in the governor's office, Bowman suddenly found himself appointed bus organizer. He tried to find armored escorts for the buses, but the National Guard said they had none to spare. And without escorts, many drivers were too afraid to go into the city.

Mr. DAVID BOWMAN (Bus Organizer): We had a--you know, one group came by, dropped off their buses and said, you know, `We were told you need buses,' and I said, `Well, who's going to drive them?' And they said, `Not us.' So, you know, in some cases we just had buses with keys in them.

SULLIVAN: Violence after the storm was also a problem for Joe Donchess. As head of the Nursing Home Association, he was trying desperately to get buses to nursing homes across the city to rescue residents trapped without food, water or electricity.

Mr. YANT: In one case, we had buses travel through the middle of the night in Baton Rouge to get to the outskirts of New Orleans, only to hear gunfire and have to turn away.

SULLIVAN: Four days after the storm, more than a hundred nursing home residents had died of heat and dehydration. And it's still unknown how many others died waiting at the Superdome, the convention center and other areas were people were stranded. Eventually, a hundred thousand people were evacuated from New Orleans after the storm. They were taken to states all across the country. Now as Hurricane Rita approaches, some of those same people are being evacuated again. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

ADAMS: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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