So… the evacuation in front of Gustav went extremely well. Preparations were made for security, information seemed to be more comprehensive, and for the most part, people listened. That’s a good thing, because hurricanes, as everybody knows, are extremely unpredictable. Furthermore, the repairs to the levees are neither complete, nor tested.
But by Monday night, it was clear that New Orleans was not going to re-live 2005… so why did its mayor want evacuated citizens to stay out until Thursday?
I’d be inclined to say that the lessons from Katrina were etched so deeply in Nagin’s mind that they paralyzed his ability to react to changed conditions, except this looks exactly like his inability to react the last time around. He was no more nimble, mentally, when conditions were deteriorating than he was when they were unexpectedly good.
There were trees down and power was out (duh) — and it’s much easier, he said, to assess and clean up an empty city. That may very well be true, but the underlying assumptions — that citizens have no place in cleaning up normal storm damage, or that they cannot determine whether the power outage is a problem for themselves — really bothers me.
Obviously, people who require power to survive — the ill or infirm, for instance — would find post-storm conditions difficult, if not impossible. It would indeed be irresponsible to deliberately put oneself in a position that requires city assistance or emergency care in such a situation. But surrounding parishes, which sustained much worse damage, seemed to think their citizenry was able to make these decisions.
Why would Nagin see, and treat, his city’s people differently?
And then there are the political and policy implications.
Politically, the debate would prove among the thorniest in the city’s first real test of emergency management since the catastrophic 2005 flood. It further raised essential questions of how far — and for how long — the government’s authority should extend over the lives and movements of citizens during an emergency, particularly one that turned out far less dire than feared.
Good questions, and they’re very closely related to the extent of government’s involvement in the lives of people, generally. New Orleans’ leadership needs to re-think some things… as do the people who put them there.
Meanwhile, the hurricane season is fully underway. But I bet New Orleanians won’t be evacuating on such a large scale the next time.