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When Patty Whitney finally made it back to her Thibodaux, Louisiana, home after Hurricane Gustav had swept through, there was no sense of relief for her—or for anyone else in southern Louisiana. Swirling toward them was the possibility of another disaster: Hurricane Ike.
Its danger—splashed across satellite images in spirals of angry red and yellow—could not be discounted. But still. They had all just returned from one grueling evacuation. Could they turn around and leave home again?
That's the question that haunts so many of the preparedness meetings Whitney attends in her role as a community organizer and executive assistant for one of Oxfam America's local partners, Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing, Inc., or BISCO. And it's the question for which there is no real answer.
"A lot of people took the money they use to pay bills and used it for evacuation costs," said Whitney. "Now they're back home and their bills are due and they don't know what to do and they hear they have to leave again? Not in this life time."
It's hard to say which worry is worse for Louisiana residents: the possibility of a second storm or the evacuation that may precede it. Evacuations are costly, exhausting, and disruptive on many levels.
With Gustav, Whitney was lucky. She and her teen-aged son, who has Down syndrome, got an early start—to avoid getting stuck on the highway—and found a welcome refuge in the home of Whitney's sister in Tallahassee, Florida. They stayed about a week, avoiding the hotel bills that many other families have to swallow.
On average, what does it cost a family of four to evacuate?
"$250 a day, easy," said Whitney. "They're going to burn at least one tank of gas to get there and one to get back—so about $120 for fuel. And $125 to $130 a day for a hotel. Plus three meals a day. That's about $100 dollars. And those are the bare necessities."
Add it all up, and you've taken a big bite out of any family's budget. Factor in the disruptions—the missed days of school, the lost income from work—and the dread of multiple evacuations becomes clear.
"People don't have the wherewithal—financial, emotional—to get out," said Whitney. "Back-to-back storms, people say ugh. They're not going to leave. It's too hard."
Storms in a Changed Environment
Convincing some people to join even the first evacuation of the season can be a challenge, said Whitney. And that's particularly true for old-timers who have weathered other storms, even severe ones such as Hurricane Betsy in 1965. That storm, with gusts reported up to 160 miles per hour, left 75 people in the US dead.
But Whitney pointed out that some of the natural defenses that once helped to keep people safe—the coastal islands and marshlands that absorbed some of the energy from earlier storms—have eroded. And waterways built by oil companies in recent decades now funnel dangerous amounts of water inland during violent storms.
"The elderly don't realize those things," said Whitney, adding that it took the graphic details from a study on storm surge to convince her own mother about the wisdom of evacuating in advance of Gustav. Public awareness programs that BISCO is promoting feature work done by the Louisiana State University Agriculture Center and the LA Sea Grant Program. It shows what could have happened to Thibodaux if Hurricane Rita, which struck three years ago, had hit just a little west of where Gustav did. Despite being the highest part of Lafourche parish, a large portion of the city would have been under water, some of it five or six feet deep, Whitney said. Lafourche Parish would have had extensive flooding and most of neighboring Terrebonne Parish would also have been flooded. BISCO has been working hard to educate the public about the danger of storm surges—and to pay attention to more than just the wind speed of top-category storms.
What's the solution to all of this?
Improving the safety of communities would help, said Whitney, and that way perhaps fewer evacuations would be necessary. Healthy marshes along the coastline are one of keys to that safety, she added.
"Man has destroyed that protection and now we're forced to get out to survive," Whitney said. "Before, people could prepare. They could board up, stock up on supplies. They knew how to protect themselves from the furor of nature because nature itself provided protection."
Restoring the marshland would restore some of that security, said Whitney.
"The technology is there, but the political will is not," she said. And that's where BISCO comes in. Grounded by generations of families who have made southern Louisiana their home, the organization is determined to change the political landscape.
"Our goal is to work with communities and networks across the country to help build the will to save the coastline," said Whitney.