After Gustav, will people heed warnings next time?
MORGAN CITY, La. – Millions fled the Gulf Coast in fear of Hurricane Gustav, billed as the apocalyptic “mother of all storms.” It didn’t deliver. Now, with three other storms lining up in the Atlantic, some fear people might not listen next time.
As the first of the 2 million people who fled Gustav began to trickle home Tuesday from shelters, many grumbled about the food, the heat, the overcrowding, the uncertainty and the frustrating wait for the all-clear. Some evacuees, particularly in Texas, on the far fringes of the storm’s path, suggested authorities overreacted in forcing them to leave their homes.
“Next time, it’s going to be bad because people who evacuated like us aren’t going to evacuate,” Catherine Jones, 53, of Silsbee, Texas, who spent three days on a cot at a church shelter with her disabled son. “They jumped the gun.”
Emergency officials strongly defended the decision to evacuate coastal areas, saying that with something as unpredictable as a hurricane, it is better to be safe than sorry — a lesson driven home by Katrina, which killed 1,600 people in the U.S. in 2005, compared with eight deaths attributed to Gustav.
Officials noted that, yes, New Orleans’ levees held, and Gustav struck only a glancing blow. But when trees fell on homes, power lines went down and roads were washed out, there was no one around to get hurt.
“The reasons you’re not seeing dramatic stories of rescue is because we had a successful evacuation,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. “The only reason we don’t have more tales of people in grave danger is because everyone heeded the instructions to get out of town.”
At the same time, a top emergency planner in Louisiana acknowledged that authorities run of the risk of being accused of crying wolf.
“At all levels, that is a tremendous concern,” said Col. Pat Griffin, head of logistics for the state. “After one or two or three of these, I think the leadership on the local and state level are going to have to push even harder to convince the people.”
With three months left in the Atlantic hurricane season, the question of whether residents will heed an evacuation order is a serious matter. Three storms are lining up in the Atlantic, with Tropical Storm Hanna leading the way. Hanna could strengthen into a hurricane and hit Florida and Georgia later in the week.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who ordered the city evacuated and warned that the “mother of all storms” was approaching, strongly stood by his decision, and said he would make do the same thing all over again.
“We were faced with a Category 5 potential, a huge storm, which would have been really bad news for our citizens,” Nagin said. “And there was a complacency.”
Similarly, some evacuees said authorities made the right call.
James Katicich, a 49-year-old Louisianan, said his stay at a shelter in Birmingham, Ala., was rough — rationed portions of food and sleeping just inches away from strangers.
“But it’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said. “We needed to evacuate because no one really knows how bad the hurricane can be until it hits.”
The damage assessments coming in Tuesday from the coast provided further evidence Gustav was no Katrina.
Initial inspections showed little damage to the Gulf Coast’s extensive oil and gas installations, though resumption of production and refining could still take a few days. Reflecting confidence that the industry suffered little damage, oil prices fell $5.75 a barrel.
In some places, such as Texas, Gustav barely brought a sprinkle, leading to frustration among those who had to spend days on a cot. The Beaumont Enterprise went as far as to taunt “Gustav Who?” on the front page the day after the storm.
“My brother went to Atlanta. He can’t get back. He’s not happy,” said Rod Ferrand, who lives in the New Orleans suburb of Harahan, as he cut up a stately live oak split by the storm. “And there’s not a branch on his lawn. Now no one can come back in. The next big storm that comes in, nobody’s going to want to leave.”
Many evacuees grew frustrated Tuesday as the waited for word on whether they could return to their homes. New Orleans officials said it would be at least Thursday before people would be allowed back, because the city lacked many vital services.
Across the state, more than 1 million people were without electricity, and cellular and Internet service was spotty. Gas stations were unable to pump fuel because of the power outages.
Dozens of hospitals were still running on generator power, several without air conditioning, and there were fears that hundreds of patients might have to be evacuated in the next few days. Only one hospital in New Orleans had the capacity to provide dialysis, and two in the Alexandria area were running low on drinking water.