On August 29, 2005, America saw the devastation Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the City of New Orleans, a city already containing a large population of poverty stricken residents. The levees protecting an area predominantly populated by the poverty stricken residents, gave way and the death toll skyrocketed. (Behreandt, 2005)
New Orleans was dependent on the promises of local, state and federal government policies to keep them safe and to protect their basic liberties in the event of a natural disaster.
These promises were not kept and the immediate effect on the city was disastrous. (Behreandt, 2005)
The failure to properly comply with the city and state ordinances for mandatory evacuation procedures put the New Orleans residents without the means to travel to safe surroundings in immediate danger; therefore these residents were left to rely on inaccurate interpretations of obligatory transportation regulations, which caused shelters to become over crowded and unfit for human habitation.
The city of New Orleans was ordered to evacuate the city on Friday, August 26, 2005 due to the threat of Hurricane Katrina, a storm that had proven to be devastating to other areas. People began to gather the necessities and almost immediately cars lined the highways headed for safety. A portion of the population remained within the city limits; for the most part these people were low income families without the option of private transportation to carry them out of harm’s way.
Reliant on public transit for transportation, they were forced to wait for some type of solution to be provided by officials.
The New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Plan states that “The city of New Orleans will utilize available resources to quickly and safely evacuate threatened areas. ...Special arrangements will be made to evacuate persons unable to transport themselves or who require specific life-saving assistance. Additional personnel will be recruited to assist in evacuation procedure as needed. ...Approximately 100,000 citizens of New Orleans do not have means of personal transportation.” (Litman 3)
In addition to the city’s ordinance was the Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Evacuation and Sheltering Plan. This plan dictates that school and municipal buses are to be utilized to evacuate those who can not reach safety on their own. (Litman 3) A third emergency plan existed; it lied with the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority.
The Transit Authority’s policy called for the drivers of municipal buses to load up their transport vehicle with their families, as well as any residents that were dependent on transit services and drive to near by cities – this service was to be free of charge. (Litman 3) The officials failed to comply and a city suffered.
Looking at the language of the safety plans, it is apparent that prior to the threat of Hurricane Katrina, officials were aware that in the event of a mandatory evacuation, people without a viable means of transportation would require immediate assistance and that extra personnel may be needed to effectively follow through. The people left in the city of New Orleans were confronted with a feeling of insecurity as they waited for the city to provide a safe environment for their families.
There were no buses dispatched carrying those left behind outside of the city limits – if the residents wanted to leave the city, they was expected to pay for commercial transportation services. Writer Joe Mariani stated that, "The poorest residents had no way out of town.” (Behreandt)
Mayor Ray Nagin’s interpretation of the emergency plan was to provide transportation to city established shelters – located within the path of the impending storm. To make matters worse, there was a shortage of buses, which left many stranded. After the storm had arrived and the streets flooded, pictures surfaced that showed school buses sitting empty in the flood waters. (Litman 4)
If the ordinance had actually been followed as written at the time evacuation was ordered approximately 30,000 people could have been evacuated.
There were approximately 500 transit and school busses at the city’s disposal and if given priority on the highways these vehicles could have made multiple trips out of the city prior to Hurricane Katrina. Even though all residents could not be evacuated outside of the city, reducing the number of residents by such a significant amount would have had a major impact on the city.
The death toll would have been much lower and the shelters would have been less crowded. (Litman 3)
New Orleans officials established ten shelters to accommodate the residents, the most noted was the Superdome. ("Order to Clear New" 8)
Public transit services transported residents from their homes to the city shelters and people were faced with long lines people waiting. The reported bus shortage left some to walk for miles seeking shelter. As shelters began to fill up with refugees the conditions began to deteriorate.
Displaced residents expecting a safe haven with food, shelter and the basic provisions found themselves hungry, thirsty and fearing for their lives.
The Los Angeles Times reported that by Monday prior to the storm the Louisiana Superdome had shown visible signs of deterioration in human condition. Within a few hours of establishment the air conditioning failed in and the smoldering heat began to fill the room. Emergency generators worked for a short time and eventually failed. (Gold)
It was reported that by the end of the first day, criminal activity had begun and refugees were being affected by the city’s poor interpretation of city ordinance.
Other shelters reported the same deteriorated conditions.
Refugees forced to go to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center were faced with the identical crime filled unhealthy conditions. One woman is quoted as saying, “I was there from Thursday to Monday with no food, no water, no restroom, no medicine and dead bodies everywhere.” (Amber et al.) Refugees gave horrific testimonies detailing the lack of food and water, assault, rape and murder. (Amber et al.)
After the Hurricane had virtually destroyed the city, the impact of the city’s failure to comply was obvious. The flooded streets of New Orleans were lined with displaced residents, as well as deteriorating corpses. (Amber et al.) The shelter conditions had continued to deteriorate and those left out in the open had heard horror stories of the Superdome. The LA Times reported that by Wednesday the Superdome had “degenerated into horror.”(Gold)
The lack of sanitation made the stench overwhelming and the toilets were overflowing and inoperable. (Gold) Even though the Superdome was patrolled by more than 500 Louisiana National Guard troops the percentage of criminal minds out weighed the peace keepers. It was reported that approximately 25,000 people sought shelter in the Superdome. (Gold)
Caroline Graham, the first journalist to go inside the Superdome after the hurricane destroyed New Orleans gives a horrific account of the conditions in her article titled If the Devil put Hell on Earth, This is it. “On Thursday night I became the first journalist to pass through the doors of New Orleans' now infamous Superdome, the temporary, nightmare refuge for those who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Hordes of victims had spent grueling hours; even days wading through waist-high waters to reach what they thought would be their safe haven. Instead, it turned into purgatory.” ("If the Devil Put" 8)
The failure to properly comply with the city and state ordinances for mandatory evacuation procedures put the New Orleans residents without the means to travel to safe surroundings in immediate danger; therefore these residents were left to rely on inaccurate interpretations of obligatory transportation regulations that caused shelters to become over crowded and unfit for human habitation.
The policies clearly state that the city is obligated to provide transportation for the residents without the luxury of a vehicle – the city failed to do so. Statistics show that had the city followed the mandatory procedures a significant number of people could have been carried out of the city limits.
In the end, the tragic stories of countless displaced people of New Orleans filled the media and left the world wondering why government and city officials failed to interpret the law as it was written.