I want to address the issue of why people (why I) did not evacuate prior to the storm.
My reason for not evacuating prior to Katrina making landfall is simple: I did not believe the officials who were telling us to evacuate.
Evacuating my home before a storm is tantamount to abandoning it. It is a gut-wrenching decision. My home is an extension of my personality and contains the things that publicly define me. My home defines my place in society. It is the place I come to for refuge against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes” I deal with on a daily basis. Abandoning my home is akin to walking away from my skin, and is not a decision made lightly.
Every time a hurricane enters the Gulf, I hear the same words from the same officials: “This is an extremely dangerous storm. It has the potential to cause widespread devastation. “Everyone living in low lying areas or areas close to the beaches should evacuate.” “Oh my God leave now while you still can and run for your lives.”
Okay, so the last sentence is an exaggeration, but not by much. Seriously folks, anyone who lives within at least 20 miles of the Gulf of Mexico coastline is in a low lying area – look at a topographical map. Tens of thousands of people live close to the beaches here – it’s where the entire infrastructure for the coast region has been built (Casinos, Shipyards, Sea Ports, Oil Refineries, Marinas, Fishing Infrastructure, Tourist Recreation Areas, Major East-West Highways, etc.).
And just where do these officials think all these tens of thousands of people they are telling to evacuate are supposed to go? Lots of people simply cannot afford 2 to 3 nights in a hotel, even if they can find one available within a 4 hours’ drive. Staying with family is good, if there is family close by. My nearest family lives 8 hours’ drive away.
Yes, the Red Cross opens shelters – right in the areas people are being told to evacuate from. And the shelters can only hold a small fraction of all the people living in the area no matter how tightly they pack people in.
Then there’s the issue of pets. Most shelters and hotels will not allow pets inside. While my personal sympathies towards people putting the safety of a pet over safety of their children and themselves are very limited, it is an issue. It is another consideration in the gut-wrenching decision of whether to leave or stay.
Last year (September 2004) I actually did evacuate for Hurricane Ivine. The decision to evacuate then was one of the more difficult decisions I’ve ever made, but I chose to believe officials announcing that life-as-we-knew-it-on-the-Mississippi-Gulf-Coast was going to end when Ivine made landfall. So I abandoned my home and left to stay with my nephew in Tennessee. I ended up breaking down on the highway and staying in a Red Cross shelter in a town in south central Alabama (Brewton), a two-hour drive north of here.
I spent two nights in that shelter – It was among the most miserable two nights of my entire life (made bearable only because of the wonderful hospitality of the local townspeople). I had to spend two nights because the town I stayed in was so devastated by the storm I couldn’t get anyone to drive me out the next day. The storm actually damaged the roof of the building we were sheltered in.
It took better than three weeks to get my truck repaired and back home. Part of the delay was waiting for the repair shop in Brewton to regain power so they could use their tools.
To add insult to injury; my town of Gautier and neighboring Pascagoula were completely undamaged. My company resumed work the day following the storm and I lost a day’s pay by not being able to return.
So prior to Katrina, when Gov Barbour, local civil defense officials, talking heads from the Weather Channel, and local WLOX weatherman Mike Reader all came on TV and said the same things that’s been said for every storm since I’ve lived here, I didn’t believe them. Call it a classic case of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” And it is my opinion that many, many people who stayed felt the same as I did.
There were also many many people who needed to stay for their jobs. Medical workers, first response providers such as police and firecrews, people at the shipyards and even churches, all needed to stay. None of these people were any more prepared than I was for the amount of flooding.
So I convinced my wife we would be better off staying than evacuating. I don’t necessarily regret this decision even now. Had we left, I think the people we stayed with would have been in bigger trouble, without my help getting them on the air mattress and bringing the boat around. And then it would have taken several days to return, so more of our personal property would have been beyond salvage.
I actually have mixed feelings about even going to the house we did go to, as close as it was. Had we stayed at our house, I could have gotten some great photographs of my workshop submerged up to the roof.
Editors Note: An earlier version of this article was also published on my DailyKos diary at Katrina Aftermath from the Front Lines, Part III about three weeks after the storm. This article has been expanded slightly for archiving on this family website
Katrina – Ten Years After : Looking back ten years after surviving hurricane Katrina.
Katrina Aftermath – The Mississippi Numbers : Running the numbers for impact of hurricane Katrina.
Katrina Aftermath Report – Commentary on Disaster Relief : My commentary on disaster relief.