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In New Orleans, Self-Sufficiency Is the Theme

Hurricane season starts June 1, and many residents are no longer relying on government planning. `It's fend-for- yourself time,' one says.

April 21, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Lauren Sweeney refuses to unwrap the care package she received from well-wishers when she ended up in Alabama in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina eight months ago. The straw basket contains mouthwash, a toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo, soap and makeup.

"That's my hurricane basket," said Sweeney, 84, a retired educator who is also storing the clothes, including Ralph Lauren pants, that the Salvation Army gave her. "I'm accumulating cash a little at a time, and I have a new credit card just for gas."

As the June 1 start of hurricane season approaches, Sweeney has begun to stockpile supplies in case of another storm, but her straw basket is only the beginning.

She and many New Orleans residents are determined to be more self-sufficient than they were when Katrina struck, because they think authorities failed them.

Few of the candidates in Saturday's mayoral election have outlined a specific pre-hurricane evacuation plan, although most of them think the city is not prepared for another monster storm.

An evacuation procedure proposed by the city is still in the works, though some aspects of it have been discussed.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin has said there will be "no shelter of last resort" to house people overnight in a future storm.

Post-Katrina shelters such as the convention center or the Superdome would likely be part of a network of staging points for bus evacuations. There will be a new emergency communications system, though details are unclear.

Louisiana has acknowledged shortfalls in its ability to evacuate residents ahead of a hurricane.

State officials have asked for help from the federal government in evacuating residents of coastal parishes, hospitals and nursing homes; transporting residents from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, La., by bus and train; and establishing "mega shelters" that could house thousands.

The federal government has refused to commit to any specific requests for help with evacuations and emergency shelters.

This week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff refused to pledge support for specific requests, and said private institutions in flood zones must take responsibility for evacuating occupants.

"It's not enough for nursing home and hospital owners to throw up their hands," Chertoff told reporters.

This has left many residents fretting.

"People are doing themselves a disservice if they think the government is going to take care of them," said Phyllis Parun, a New Orleans community activist who Wednesday organized a workshop on hurricane preparedness in her Bywater neighborhood, and got the American Red Cross to lead it. "It's fend-for-yourself time."

Kay Wilkins, chief executive of the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of the American Red Cross, told Bywater residents that "the city's evacuation plan is as much a draft as a plan in the making because there are so many unknowns. It's a plan that changes literally every day."

She said many details had to be worked out to prevent another breakdown. "There were plans in place [last time], but people who were responsible for getting those plans in place didn't follow through," Wilkins said.

"I don't blame the present [mayor's] administration," said Leonard Jackson, 60, who attended the workshop at the urging of Sweeney, his landlady. "They did the best they could under the circumstances. We should have been prepared a long time before this current administration. And the state and federal government should have done more to help."

Most of the mayoral candidates talk in generalities about the need to create an evacuation and shelter plan.

Only a few have gone into detail, such as the Rev. Tom Watson's proposal to organize a sequential evacuation departure based on ZIP Codes.

Many residents who attended the Bywater workshop were elderly and said they weren't going to chance waiting on government help -- no matter who won the mayor's race.

Some acknowledged they had waited too long to evacuate during Katrina, and if they had managed to leave before the storm, they did so without adequate supplies of food, clothes, money and medicine.

"I had to wait for someone that I knew to get me ... to help me," said Yvonne Hookfin, 68, who was stranded in her apartment for five days after the storm.

She said a broken leg prevented her from leaving sooner, but she had learned a crucial lesson: "Leave before the storm gets here."

Raymond "Moose" Jackson told Wilkins that he and his friends wanted to learn CPR in order to become more self-sufficient.

"A lot of us got left behind last time, and a lot of us are worried about getting left behind again," Jackson said.

Wilkins, holding up a copy of the Louisiana Citizen Awareness and Disaster Evacuation Guide, which details evacuation routes, emergency shelter information and instructions for a family communication plan, rattled off her recommendations:

Assign someone to help you evacuate before the final order to leave.

Plan alternative routes to a safe haven.

Designate a contact person who has a phone number outside the New Orleans and Baton Rouge area codes, in case those go down.

Begin stockpiling provisions, such as bottled water, canned goods, nonperishable snack foods, medications, batteries and a flashlight.

"Now is the time to start packing up your supply kit for hurricane season," Wilkins told the audience, many of whom were clearly worried. "Buy two or three items a week -- it will make it easier."

Her parting message was one of foreboding.

"Expect to leave earlier this year," Wilkins said. "Expect to leave for a storm which you wouldn't have left for before."

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