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Music Cue: Living With Hurricanes

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Scott Simon reflects on hurricane mentality and how it may be more difficult to get people to evacuate after Hurricane Gustav, which turned out to be a mild storm.


A couple of years ago, my wife and I had dinner with a Chicago alderman and talked about the devastation that Hurricane Katrina and government ineptitude had wreaked on New Orleans. The alderman remembered those damning photos of yellow New Orleans school buses submerged by water in a parking lot. If that had been this city, she told us, we would have our people on those buses headed out of town before the hurricane struck. I thought of that conversation this week during the evacuation of New Orleans and other places in advance of Hurricane Gustav which punched itself out from category four to category two by the time it hit land. This weekend, thousands of people who evacuated, as they were advised to do, are still sleeping in temporary shelters where conditions are reportedly grimy and grim. A man named Carlos Pavilus(ph) of New Orleans, who's in a shelter in a Birmingham convention center, told the Associated Press, I'm so tired of smelling tennis shoes and diapers. We have no laundry. We have no showers. They're running out of food. But we can't go home.

A lot of us from northern climes who covered Katrina in New Orleans or Mississippi three years ago got introduced to what is sometimes called a hurricane attitude. People who grow up in hurricane zones can usually remember a dozen storms by name. They had battened down their doors and windows, and ridden them out in their homes. Windows broke, floors were flooded, power went out, but they stayed to care for their pets, ward off looters, and protect their possessions. They were proud of staying. Hurricanes are a part of life here, they explained. Up North, how do you put up with all that snow? For every storm that hit, they could remember two or three like Gustav that had simply swerved away.

Last week's evacuation of southern Louisiana was a hugely successful strategic operation. But how many times can a mayor of New Orleans warn the mother of all storms is coming and be taken seriously when it turns away? And how many times will families put themselves through an evacuation, leaving jobs and schools for a week, inching through long lines of choking traffic, sleeping on cots amidst strangers in a shelter, lining up just to get a donut or use a bathroom, all the while worrying about their homes and possessions. When the next storm looms, will they just groan and decide to stay? A hurricane is a threat. People who grew up with that threat learn that despite all the vivid satellite photos, it may hit them or it may blow away. The upset, loss, and squalor of an evacuation is a certainty. Three years later, I think I understand why all those school buses were empty.

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