The third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is this weekend and Mother Nature seems to think that the best way to celebrate this is to throw another hurricane at New Orleans. I've been watching this storm probably just as much as the actual residents of New Orleans, and other than the fact that I haven't run to WalMart in a frenzy to stock up on candles and tuna, I feel exactly the same as I did when I lived there and had to make the big decision of to evacuate or not to evacuate.
When I meet people and they find out that I left NOLA because of Katrina, many ask why so many people didn't evacuate. "If they knew it could be bad, why didn't they leave?" "Isn't it just irresponsible to stay?" "How could they just not go?" These are all valid questions and, honestly, I would rather people ask and get answers rather than just assuming that folks in NOLA are stupid and that's why they didn't leave. And trust me, some people do believe that NOLA residents are just dumb and have no problem telling me that. They usually follow this sentiment up with "People shouldn't be allowed to live in New Orleans in the first place." I usually follow this up with a polite "Fuck you, you arrogant asshat. I hope your hometown falls into a sinkhole soon." Bonus points to me for saying it with a big shit-eating grin on my face.
But honestly, deciding to evacuate is a huge decision. One I've wrestled with many times as an adult and I can say that coming to a decision never is easy. Yes, evacuating for every hurricane that is even a mild threat to NOLA would be the correct move, but in reality that will never happen. Evacuating is a huge expense. It's a hassle. It's time consuming. And a lot of the times it's totally pointless. Katrina has been the one time in my life that evacuating was the correct decision. Every other hurricane I experienced in my 25 years in NOLA either missed the city at the last minute or didn't bring with it more than a heavy rain and some wind. You can imagine how this would make you think twice about evacuating for every hurricane gunning towards the city.
The other problem with evacuating is the expense. Hurricanes can happen multiple times a summer, seriously there is no limit. If you evacuated for every one you're looking at huge amounts of money spent on all kinds of things: hotels, gas, food, and many other various expenses along the way. And let's not overlook the fact that if the hurricane misses the city, you could be out a day or more of work. That's money lost for many residents, especially ones that work on hourly pay scales. And for many of those people, that's money they can't afford to not make.
But losing a couple of days of work is really a small concern, considering that you could lose your job for evacuating. Many retail stores and restaurants are not sympathetic to people's needs to flee. If the business does not shut down for evacuations, you could be faulted as a "no show" for any shift that you're scheduled for. Same thing after evacuating; if the business opens and you're on your way back from Houston and can't make your Tuesday morning shift then you could be out a job. It's not fair, but it happens. I worked at a business that said we would be fired for not showing up if we chose to evacuate and didn't make our shifts. And when you need that income desperately, sometimes the easy decision is not to head out of town. Or to send your family and stay behind, hoping for the best.
Has this become an unfun blog post about a depressing topic? ding ding ding, we have a winner! Yes it has! Sorry. Go get a cookie if you've read this far. And go get me a drink because, dude, I neeeed one. And I swear I only have like one more point to make.
Right now Hurricane Gustav is just entering the Gulf of Mexico but if you started to call hotels in the typical cities people evacuate towards (Houston, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, etc) I bet you couldn't get a room anywhere. And if you could get a room, I bet they would only hold it for you for a couple of hours. One time, before Katrina, a hurricane was heading our way. I called Houston and booked a room, but the hotel told me they would only hold my room until 6pm on the day of the reservation. Problem was, I was not going to make it to Houston in that time frame. I offered to pay for the whole reservation up front, but they wouldn't allow it. The hotel staff told me that they can't hold reservations during times of evacuation because of such high demand. If I couldn't be there by 6pm, my room would go to someone standing in the lobby. I called a few other hotels, but no one else had rooms open. I decided not to evacuate because where would I go? I would have had to sleep in my car in Houston and that wasn't an option. And going past Houston wasn't an option because I needed to be able to get back to the city quickly to get back to work if the hurricane didn't do much damage. For many people that don't have family willing to take them in, leaving is hard. You don't know where you'll end up, you don't know if there will be room for you. You just don't know and sometimes that stops people dead in their tracks.
For Katrina jparks and I went back and forth about evacuating. We had friends in Houston to stay with if needed (and we ended up doing just that), and we had the money to evacuate, but still we thought long and hard about it. At first we weren't going to leave our house. Then we were going to stay with my mom in the suburbs. Finally we decided to get the hell out. Had we stayed in our house, bad things would have happened to us. Had we stayed at my mom's, we would have physically been fine, but without power or water and we would have been forced to leave anyway. Getting out for Katrina was the right decision and one that many people just couldn't make.
I hope that people continue to watch Gustav and take the hard lessons from Katrina into account when making their plans. It's not an easy decision to leave, but if Gustav stays on it's path (which it might not. there's plenty of time for it to turn. turn, you bastard TURN), it will be the correct one.
But what do I know? I'm just a New Orleans girl stuck in California.