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Storm Passes, but Questions Linger in New Orleans

The mayor concedes preparations for Ivan could have been better. Evacuation, shelter problems are cited.

September 17, 2004|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The skies had cleared Thursday, stores were reopened, and residents had pulled the plywood off their windows.

Lucy Tarzian was relieved that the threat of Hurricane Ivan had passed but -- like many residents here -- she questioned the city's emergency response efforts.

"It doesn't seem like we're prepared to deal with a major hurricane," said Tarzian, who was caught in a chaotic mass exodus as Ivan loomed in the Gulf of Mexico this week. "We've been in enough hurricanes here, you'd think they'd know how to handle them by now."

Among the problems officials faced was how to evacuate 1.2 million people from a city with only one interstate leading out of town. And the emergency shelter proved insufficient to house the tens of thousands left behind -- many of them poorer residents who had no cars to leave in. Now another problem is looming as residents jam the roads again as they return from out of state.

At a news conference Thursday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin conceded that there was room for improvement in the face of disaster. City and parish officials, he said, would meet next week to work on ideas for better communication between state and local agencies.

"We know there's going to be lots of Monday morning quarterbacking, but ... this event went off pretty well," Nagin said. "The big glaring opportunity for improvement is coordination between city, state and parish agencies.... We need to do a much better job of that."

As Ivan roiled in the Gulf waters Tuesday, fears of potential flooding prompted residents to flee, only to be caught in miles of traffic on Interstate 10. Narrower state roads also were clogged, and Nagin was criticized for not moving faster to allow cars to travel away from town on both inbound and outbound lanes.

Tarzian spent 7 1/2 hours on the freeway and traveled 35 miles for her trouble. Frustrated and frightened at the prospect of being stuck on the road when the storm hit, she turned her car around and went home.

"Honestly, I know it's impossible to get everybody out quickly, but there has got to be a better way than that," she said. "They needed to let people know what the alternate routes were, what roads were open. It seemed like most of us were on the freeway."

As the hurricane moved closer to land Wednesday, relief agencies refused to open the city's shelters, citing the safety of their volunteers in this flood-prone city. The 72,000-seat Louisiana Superdome was designated as an evacuation spot, but initially it was reserved for only seniors and the frail; the stadium was opened to the wider public after citizens complained.

"The mayor was sorely wrong in how he handled the shelters," resident Katina Broussard, 31, said. "He wasn't looking out for people who needed help. It could have cost a lot of people their lives."

Broussard, sitting on a friend's porch in the St. Bernard housing development, said she knows many people who don't own cars and could not evacuate. "It was a dangerous storm, and the city had a week to plan for it. There isn't any excuse," she said.

To those without transportation or a safe place to stay, New Orleans City Hall officials called for a "vertical evacuation," suggesting that residents go to upper floors of buildings. Nagin acknowledged that people who wound up in attics might be trapped by rising waters, and suggested that they carry heavy tools -- such as power saws -- to bore an escape hatch in the roof.

Shortly afterward, the National Hurricane Center in Miami issued a storm advisory reminding people that the wind strength in hurricanes rises rapidly with elevation. A Category 3 storm, for instance, is a Category 4 storm 300 feet off the ground, the hurricane center said.

Such leadership missteps may be embarrassing, but won't hurt Nagin in the long run, said Gordon Harvey, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana in Monroe.

"I think people will see it wasn't so much incompetence as it was lack of practice," he said. "You can have a plan on paper, but it's not the same as putting it into action."

Add to that a difficult-to-track hurricane, and you get the scene that unfolded in New Orleans this week, he said.

Back at her home in the French Quarter, Tarzian had her doubts. "It doesn't make sense that things went like they did.... We should have a plan that works," she said.


Times staff writer Scott Gold in Houston contributed to this report.

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