Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Plans were known to be inadequate a year ago, after Ivan.

This article must be read in full.
Copyright 2004 Dolan Media Newswires
New Orleans CityBusiness (New Orleans, LA)

September 27, 2004 Monday


LENGTH: 843 words

HEADLINE: Terrible Traces: N.O. evacuation fails to account for thousands

BYLINE: Richard A. Webster

The near miss of Hurricane Ivan highlighted the vulnerability of the homeless and low-income families in New Orleans.

Rusty Wirth, a case manager with the New Orleans Police Department's Homeless Assistance Team, said the city failed to protect the homeless population during the crisis. Shelters closed prematurely and Mayor C. Ray Nagin's administration was late in opening the Superdome as an emergency shelter, he said.

"People look at the homeless as just a bunch of drunks and addicts. But they're people and I was one of them," Wirth said. "I was homeless in '97, so this is where my heart is. And when I see my people getting screwed, I get really upset."

Tanzie Jones, Nagin spokeswoman, said the city did everything it could to protect the populace in calling for a voluntary evacuation and opening the Superdome to the public on Wednesday afternoon, less than 12 hours before Ivan arrived.

Nagin said 80 percent of the 1,200 people who sought shelter in the Superdome were homeless. Information on the cost of evacuating the homeless was not immediately available.

"They paid attention to our warnings so it looks like the plan worked," Nagin said.

But shelter officials said they did not see much of a plan at all. There are 980 emergency shelter beds for the more than 6,500 homeless people in New Orleans, according to Unity for the Homeless, a New Orleans advocacy group.

Wirth said the problem began when a number of emergency shelter beds in New Orleans were taken out of circulation as the hurricane drew closer.

When it appeared as if Hurricane Ivan might slam directly into the Louisiana coast, many shelters closed. By Tuesday, only two open-intake adult shelters remained open with 296 total beds: the New Orleans Mission and the Ozanam Inn.

Tobey Pitman, director of Brantley Baptist Center, said its shelter closed after directors imagined a "worst-case scenario."

"There was no way we could have cared for a house full of people if there was a real bad turn of events," he said.

Biaggio Digiovanni, administrator of the Ozanam Inn, said the emergency shelter bed shortage was exacerbated by the city's failure to address the issue. For six months, he said he had been trying to contact the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness regarding protection for the homeless in the event of a hurricane but a meeting never occurred, he said.

Martha Kegel, executive director of Unity, met with the Office of Emergency Preparedness the Monday before the hurricane.

"They told us there was no plan for sheltering the general public except that the Red Cross would have shelters outside of the city. Unfortunately, they had no plans to help people get to those shelters," she said.

By Tuesday night, the New Orleans Mission had reached its capacity of 200 people. By Wednesday afternoon, it exceeded that capacity by 100.

The Ozanam Inn just as quickly reached and surpassed its capacity of 96 people.

"Our plan was to stack in as many people as we could," said Wirth, who volunteers at the New Orleans Mission. "We were not going to close our doors or turn people away."

Ozanam and the Mission did receive some 11th-hour assistance.

The Salvation Army became an open-intake shelter at noon Wednesday, said Cmdr. Maj. Richard Brittle.

By Wednesday afternoon, as shelters were filled past capacity, Nagin opened the Superdome as a last resort. The city gave the public a two-hour window between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to reach the Superdome or one of eight public schools serving as a shuttle site to the Superdome.

"We timed the announcement to allow people to have the maximum amount of time in their homes before we moved them to a shelter," Nagin said. "It lessens the inconvenience."

Kegel asked how people without cars were supposed to reach the pick-up points and how the homeless were supposed to even know about pick-up points.

"It's frustrating," she said. "Our large number of vulnerable citizens who can't evacuate should be at the center of our hurricane plans, not an afterthought, something to be addressed at the 13th hour. The city basically left it to the nonprofit sector to deal with the situation."

Pitman said the problem is far greater than just sheltering the homeless.

"There are tens of thousands of low-income people who have no way to evacuate during emergencies," Pitman said.

More than 100,000 people in New Orleans don't have personal transportation, making a mandatory evacuation impossible, Nagin said.

"We can't announce a mandatory evacuation because we can't deliver it," he said.

Kegel said the city should form evacuation plans for the poor, elderly and disabled and disseminate those plans well in advance. Such plans, she said, require partnerships between nonprofits, the business sector, the church community and government.

"This should serve as a wake-up call for all of us. If the hurricane directly hit New Orleans there would have been a catastrophic loss of life. Instead of saying it's impossible to evacuate the poor, we need to at least try," she said.

Apparently no on was listening to Ms. Kegel.

from Lexis-Nexis -- no link.

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