Much has been said about Hurricane Ida, which hit New Orleans on the same day Hurricane Katrina made landfall 16 years earlier. But there is another meaning to the date beyond birthdays. The two storms struck at the end of a long month; for most people, a few days before their paychecks arrive. For the roughly 25% of U.S. citizens who report having no savings, that means they have no money to pay for evacuation costs. Even for the additional 26% with less than three months of savings, or 19% with cash on hand for up to five months of spending, the unexpected cost of an evacuation could leave a gaping hole in those savings.
What looks like success – people who come out before a storm – could leave families more vulnerable to future crises if they run into debt or deplete their savings.
Evacuation is a major challenge in a disaster and one of the most effective ways to save lives. But evacuations are not straightforward either; what is easy for one group of people may be impossible for another. And even a successful evacuation is just the beginning of the story, not the end. Yet we often treat it that way and overlook the equally important, if not greater, challenge of ensuring that evacuees have safe and affordable housing, as well as the means to return. What looks like success – people who come out before a storm – could leave families more vulnerable to future crises if they run into debt or deplete their savings.
While evacuations offer a chance for individual agency and responsible decisions, we also compound the difficulty of the process when we blame those who cannot leave or for whom the choice has long-term effects on their finances. In Ida’s wake, we need to pay attention to the long-term impacts on those who may have gone out, and devote more attention to ensuring that everyone who leaves has something to come back to.
As is often the case with storm coverage, the media discussed whether and when government officials would issue evacuation orders as Ida neared the Gulf Coast, then asked repeatedly how many residents had left. As an audience, we’ve encouraged people to get out on time (and hopefully have made sure our own “take-out bags” are up to date). It’s an urge learned by looking at the aftermath of previous hurricanes, wildfires, and other crises, especially Ida’s most obvious antecedent, Katrina. Implicit in this well-meaning frenzy over evacuations is criticism of those who remain – and sometimes it is explicit, as officials or commentators note the danger this poses to first responders who must try to save those who are. trapped in the city during the storm.
But there are many reasons why people might not be able to evacuate before a hurricane or other impending disaster. The logistics of evacuating over a million people from a small area with few freeways are daunting, and those who choose to go face long traffic jams, overcrowded airports or gas stations. transit made all the more uncomfortable and dangerous by the pandemic. Ida offered an added challenge when, fueled by water warmed by climate change, it went from a Category 1 to a Category 4 in less than 24 hours, leaving too little time for a mandatory evacuation order.
In fact, the so-called mandatory evacuation orders are hardly ever enforced, possibly both because of the difficulty of doing so and because of a cultural loathing for it. Unable or reluctant to force people to leave, governments and crisis managers have focused on persuading people to leave, often emphasizing that it is an individual responsibility during crises. But financial, medical or transportation constraints prevent many people from leaving. The evacuation of Hurricane Katrina involved a cross-flow order – forcing both sides of the highway to go in the same direction – which was widely viewed as a success; but it is much more famous for the people, many without a car, stranded in a flooded city.
Since then, New Orleans has turned its attention to carless people, developing city-assisted bus routes and evacuation plans, but long-haul public transport is scarce in the area (as I l discovered during my research thesis on Katrina), and getting around without a car is always a challenge. Even those who own a car might not be able to refuel or afford other necessities of a sudden trip. The Denver Post interviewed people unable to leave, including a man who was desperate enough to try and take out a predatory “payday” loan – and was turned down.
This is all just an exit. There remains the problem, and the cost, of finding accommodation. The American Red Cross offers free shelters open to everyone (some of which are run by partner organizations). However, these do not accept pets; they ask people to bring their own bedding, clothes and medicine; and they offer privacy and limited facilities for bathing, cooking and other household needs. They also usually require a car to access them, although city-assisted evacuation plans may lead some people to shelters. Hotels and motels, on the other hand, are expensive, especially with an unknown release date.
In Ida’s case, electricity in New Orleans was cut and water and sewage systems were damaged throughout the region. The situation is so dire that the governor of Louisiana is asking people not to return until the “survival infrastructure” is working again. A family that was able to afford a night or two in a hotel now faces the dilemma of continuing to pay indefinitely or attempting a return against official advice – and then potentially being blamed in the same way as people who could not evacuate. Meanwhile, flash floods in New Jersey and New York have shown how quickly roads can become impassable and public transportation systems can be closed, making it impossible for people to move around. And, as with New Orleans, it’s unclear how much damage has been done and how long it will take to get an already poor infrastructure back to basics.
As storms and wildfires worsen and aging, poorly maintained urban and rural infrastructure breaks down, these issues will only become more urgent and universal. We need to stop seeing evacuation as an entirely individual responsibility and start offering better and more comprehensive support to people who cannot do it on their own. In our planning, we need to go beyond seeing the evacuation as just a start and consider the issues of where people are going and how long it may be before they can return. A more global and more realistic reflection on evacuations could finally encourage us to make our cities and their infrastructures more resilient; otherwise, we’re going to run out of places to flee.