Much has been made of Hurricane Ida slamming New Orleans on the same day that, 16 years earlier, Hurricane Katrina made landfall. But there’s another significance to the date beyond anniversaries. Both storms hit at the end of a long month; for most people, a few days before their paychecks would arrive. For the roughly 25 percent of U.S. citizens who report having no savings, that means no money to pay for evacuation costs. Even for the additional 26 percent with less than three months’ savings, or 19 percent with cash on hand for up to five months’ of expenses, the unexpected cost of an evacuation could leave a gaping hole in those savings.
What looks like success — people getting out before a storm — could leave families in greater vulnerability for future crises if they incur debt or use up their savings.
Evacuation is a key challenge in disasters, and one of the most effective ways to save lives. But evacuations are also not simple; what’s easy for one set of people may be impossible for another. And even a successful evacuation is only the start of the story, not the end. Yet we often treat it that way and neglect the equally great — if not greater — challenge of making sure evacuees have safe, affordable places to stay, as well as the means of returning. What looks like success — people getting out before a storm — could leave families in greater vulnerability for future crises if they incur debt or use up their savings.
While evacuations do offer a chance for individual agency and responsible decisions, we also compound the difficulty of the process when we blame those who are unable to leave or for whom the choice has long-term effects on their finances. In the wake of Ida, we need to pay attention to the long-term impacts on those who were able to get 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 approached the Gulf Coast and then asked over and over how many residents had left. As the audience, we rooted for people to get out in time (and hopefully checked that our own “go bags” are up-to-date). It’s an urge learned from watching the aftermath of previous hurricanes, wildfires and other crises, in particular the most obvious antecedent to Ida, Katrina. Implicit in this well-meaning frenzy about evacuations is a criticism of those who stay — and sometimes it is explicit, as officials or commentators note the danger that it poses to first responders who must try to rescue those trapped in the city during the storm.
But there are many reasons why people might not be able to evacuate ahead of a hurricane or other impending disaster. The logistics of evacuating more than 1 million people from a small area with few highways are daunting, and those who choose to go face long traffic jams, crowded airports or transit stations made all the more uncomfortable, and unsafe, by the pandemic. Ida offered an additional challenge when, fueled by climate-change-warmed water, it intensified from a Category 1 to a Category 4 in under 24 hours, leaving too little time for a mandatory evacuation order.
In fact, so-called mandatory evacuation orders are hardly ever enforced, probably both because of the difficulty of doing so and because of a cultural distaste for it. Unable or unwilling to force people out, governments and crisis managers have shifted the focus to persuading people to leave, often by highlighting it as an individual responsibility during crises. But financial, medical or transportation constraints mean many people can’t leave. The evacuation from Hurricane Katrina included a contraflow order — making both sides of the freeway run in the same direction — that was largely considered a success; but it is much more famous for the people, many of them carless, stranded in a flooded city.
New Orleans has increased its attention to those without cars since then, developing bus routes and city-assisted evacuation plans, but long-haul public transportation is scarce in the region (as I discovered when doing my dissertation research on Katrina), and moving without a car is still a challenge. Even those who own a car might not be able to fill it up with gas or afford other necessities of sudden travel. The Denver Post interviewed people unable to leave, including a man who was desperate enough to try to take out a predatory “payday” loan— and was denied.
All of that is just the getting out. There is still the problem, and the cost, of finding somewhere to stay. The American Red Cross offers shelters that are free and open to all (some of which are operated by partner organizations). However, these do not accept pets; they ask that people bring their own bedding, clothes and medications; and they offer limited privacy and facilities for bathing, cooking and other household needs. They also generally require a car to reach, although the city-assisted evacuation plans may bus some people to shelters. Hotels and motels, on the other hand, are expensive — particularly with an unknown date of exit.
In the case of Ida, power to New Orleans has been knocked out and water and sewage systems have been damaged across the region. The situation is so dire that the governor of Louisiana is asking people not to return until “life-supporting infrastructure elements” are functioning again. A family that was able to afford one or two nights in a hotel is now caught in 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 couldn’t evacuate. Meanwhile, the sudden flooding in New Jersey and New York showed how quickly roads can become impassable and public transportation systems can be shut down, making it impossible for people to move. And, as with New Orleans, it is unclear how much damage has been done and how long it will take to restore already sub-par infrastructure to basic functioning.
As storms and wildfires worsen, and aging, poorly maintained urban and rural infrastructure fails, these problems are only going to become more urgent and more universal. We need to stop framing evacuation as a completely individual responsibility and start offering better, more comprehensive support to people who can’t do it on their own. In our planning we need to go beyond seeing evacuation as a simple departure and consider the problems of where people are going and how long it might be before they can return. Thinking more holistically and realistically about evacuations might finally spur us to make our cities and their infrastructure more resilient; otherwise, we are going to run out of places to flee to.
Malka Older, Ph.D., is an associate researcher with the Center for the Sociology of Organizations at Institut d’Études Politques de Paris and has more than a decade of experience in international humanitarian aid and development. She is the author of the Hugo-finalist trilogy of political science thrillers The Centenal Cycle, beginning with “Infomocracy.”