“Hurricane Ida was an eye-opener,” Colin Arnold, director of the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, told Verite in a recent interview. 

Twenty-one New Orleans residents died in the wake of the 2021 storm, mostly as a result of a citywide power outage that took 10 days to fix. And now, as the city updates emergency plans for a new hurricane season, officials are still trying to address some of those deadly gaps that Ida exposed. 

Hurricane Ida took the city by surprise, puncturing a central premise that officials would have at least three days’ warning before a major hurricane hit. Although storm tracking forecasts have steadily improved, climate change has caused hurricanes to intensify faster, experts say, making it hard to predict intensity. And the effect is likely to get worse. 

“Particularly over the last four or five years, we’ve had a shorter and shorter timeline” for assessing strom threats, Arnold said. “I’m trying to be realistic about how much time we’re going to have.”

Since Katrina, New Orleans typically has had only one clear plan for how to deal with hurricanes: Get everyone out before the storm hits. That was the protocol followed for Hurricane Gustav in 2008, when the city called for a mandatory evacuation ahead of the storm and then implemented the City-Assisted Evacuation plan. 

Before last year, the city said that it needed to have those 72 hours warning to fully implement the CAE, or it would not implement it at all. By the time Ida’s potential impact became clear, the city said there wasn’t enough time. Even though the storm was still more than two days away, the city didn’t launch any major city-assisted evacuation effort. 

The city also had no clear, written protocols for how to respond in the aftermath, when about half of all residents were stuck in a city without essential services.

The majority of the 21 deaths in New Orleans happened four or more days after the storm, mostly from excessive heat. It took nearly a week for New Orleans to evacuate senior living facilities, where eight people died after the storm. The city didn’t even start checking in on the facilities until four days after Ida had passed, by which time neighboring Jefferson Parish had already begun evacuating its senior facilities. 

In response, the city last year introduced a number of new emergency plans, including for post-storm evacuations, electrified post-storm resource centers for blackouts and special measures for the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Arnold said the plans put the city in a much better position. But they’ve also come in for criticism. In 2022, WWNO shared the blueprint with emergency planning experts, who pointed out that the city doesn’t make many firm commitments for what it will do. 

The traditional pre-storm evacuation plan includes a long list of things the city is committed to doing. But many of the new plans only say the city “may” take certain actions, or may not.

“This section describes operations that, by virtue of the situation, must be inherently flexible and open to adaptation,” the city’s new post-storm evacuation plan says. “The operations described here represent proposed options, but may not be appropriate or feasible for all storms.”

Arnold said he understands that a lack of clarity makes it harder for individuals to plan. At the same time, he said that the unpredictable nature of disasters makes many firm promises hollow. 

“I’m not crazy about saying ‘we may’” Arnold said. “But a lot of it does depend on what I know I have in my hand at that moment.”

For example, the city has 20 potential emergency resource centers for post-storm situations, but can’t guarantee they’ll all be open because they may not be usable after a hurricane. 

But Arnold said the plan is being built to use whatever possible resources the city has to act quickly, get out as many people who want and need to leave as possible and do everything to help the people still in New Orleans in the aftermath. 

Faster, more flexible pre-storm evacuation 

The new plan says that even if there is less than 72 hours notice, the city will implement as much of the CAE as it can, with a focus on evacuating seniors and medically vulnerable residents.

To find vulnerable residents, the city will focus on senior living facilities and its Smart911 database. The city’s Smart911 service allows residents to register with the city and note any special needs, such as oxygen or dialysis treatments. Residents can sign up online or by calling 311. 

Arnold said the shorter the timeline gets, the more variability there could be in the plan. For example, under a full mandatory evacuation, the central evacuation site is automatically the Smoothie King Center. Under a smaller evacuation, it could move to the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center. 

“People need to really stay connected,” Arnold said. 

To sign up for the city’s emergency text messaging system, text NOLAREADY to 77295. To get the notifications in Spanish, text ESP to 77295. Arnold also suggested having backup batteries to charge your phone in the event of a blackout as well as battery-powered radio. 

Post-storm citywide evacuation

The city now has a plan for post-storm evacuations, including one option for a full, city-wide mandatory evacuation, as well as more limited efforts focusing on vulnerable residents.  

Arnold said a mass post-storm evacuation would likely only happen after a major flooding event similar to Hurricane Katrina. In that scenario, officials would stage buses outside of the city, with the hope of having them come in and start taking people out of New Orleans 24 hours after landfall. 

But even if the city tries to follow the CAE as closely as possible, Arnold warned that it will be much harder to implement in the wake of a storm. He said there may be necessary audibles, in part because the city relies on state and federal aid. For example, while the city is responsible for transporting residents to the Smoothie King Center, the state is responsible for busing them out from there. 

“We rely on assets from partners that we don’t control,” Arnold said.

Limited post-storm evacuation for vulnerable residents

More likely than a catastrophic flood event is a prolonged power outage. And Arnold said in those situations, a full post-storm evacuation may not always be the right choice. 

Arnold said that in retrospect, he didn’t think a mass city evacuation was the appropriate response for the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Although he noted the city has to do better. 

The city evacuated 1,200 people after Ida. And those evacuations didn’t begin until almost a week after the storm. 

If it happened again, Arnold predicted the city would aim to evacuate between 5,000 and 7,000 of the city’s most vulnerable residents, and that it would begin within 72 hours after landfall. But that timeline largely depends on when Entergy releases its estimated time to restore power. 

“Entergy’s estimate will be the key decision point,” Arnold said. “That’s what’s going to determine what happens next.”

Arnold said that Entergy has promised to get those estimates to the city within three days. If the company determines the blackout could last more than a week, Arnold said the city would start evacuating vulnerable residents. In the three days they wait for Entergy’s estimates, he said, city officials would be checking on senior living facilities as much as possible and providing medical supplies. 

A ‘hybrid’ plan for long power outages

There is a long list of reasons why people remain in New Orleans during a hurricane, including the lack of finances to evacuate on their own combined with the city’s inability to get them out. Other people stay because of trauma from past evacuations or fear of looting. 

Whatever the reasons, there will be people in New Orleans after a major hurricane who will need life-saving aid. 

“My message is still, if you have the ability to leave for a major storm, that’s probably going to be your best bet,” Arnold said. “But unfortunately, we have a population in the city who that’s not going to be an option for. So what is the plan? … I’m calling it kind of a hybrid, a combination of moving folks we can with the assets we have on hand, but then also providing sheltering in place [facilities] with adequate monitoring.”

Perhaps the biggest change to help people in a post-storm blackout is the new Emergency Resource Center plan. The city has a list of 20 possible locations to turn into ERCs, which can provide electricity, cooling centers, internet and phone connections and vital public information. 

Unlike other parts of the plan, Arnold said that residents can be confident these will be activated in the event of a blackout. 

“ERCS are pretty much automatic,” Arnold said. “I want them up and running within 12 to 24 hours.”

The city’s plans for setting up shelters and make-shift medical centers after a storm are much harder to predict, Arnold said, saying different scenarios will require different responses. He once again stressed that evacuation is often the best option with a serious storm, and that anyone with the means to evacuate on their own should plan to do so. Anyone who needs to rely on the city for evacuation needs to stay as connected as possible as new information is released. 

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Before joining Verite, Michael Isaac Stein spent five years as an investigative reporter at The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans news publication, covering local government, housing and labor issues. During...