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Evacuate. Leave. Get out. Confused?
Council tries to clarify what it really means
Monday, May 29, 2006
By Bruce Eggler Staff writer

The call for a voluntary evacuation gave way to a "mandatory" evacuation order on the day before Hurricane Katrina hit the city Aug. 29. And still tens of thousands of New Orleanians, from choice or necessity, ignored Mayor Ray Nagin's appeals to flee the city. Advertisement

With that precedent in mind, and in an effort to reduce confusion, the city has a new law that tries to define "mandatory evacuation" more precisely.

But, confusingly, the law adds another term, "forced evacuation," to the discussion, and debate on the measure revealed that at least one of the most prominent holdouts last time still has no intention of fleeing the city, order or no order.

Some City Council members indicated they are less concerned with getting definitions right than with making sure that people evacuated on buses will be welcomed wherever the buses end up taking them.

Nonetheless, the council Thursday unanimously passed an ordinance proposed by the Nagin administration that spells out in detail what voluntary and mandatory evacuations are and when they should be called.

It also defines a more drastic category, a forced evacuation, but the law authorizes the mayor to declare nothing more than a mandatory evacuation.

As the world learned after Katrina, such an order is not really mandatory because, as the new law says, "persons who refuse to comply . . . will not be forcibly removed from their homes."

In the event of a forced evacuation, the law says, officials could force people to leave their homes, but it appears there is no plan to implement such a measure citywide in the face of a hurricane.

Terry Ebbert, the city's director of homeland security, said the federal government has directed all the parishes in southeast Louisiana to pass laws with identical definitions of the various levels of evacuation. The goal is to eliminate confusion about what each jurisdiction means when it uses the terms.

Under an advisory or voluntary evacuation order, the new law says, "residents are advised to leave the area and relocate to safer locations for their own safety. Personal discretion is allowed but not advised." People with special needs, such as those with disabilities or in nursing homes, "are particularly encouraged to leave as soon as possible."

As soon as a voluntary evacuation order is given, business owners "are strongly urged to suspend normal business operations" and release all nonessential workers. "All private-sector employees shall be deemed nonessential unless designated as 'critical work force' or 'essential' by government officials."

The law says the second level, a mandatory evacuation, "may be ordered when a disaster or emergency has been declared and danger is imminent," with lives threatened. In such a case, "government officials strongly urge and order all persons in designated evacuation areas to relocate to safer locations for their own safety. Personal discretion is not to be considered a deciding factor."

Yet even though "all nonessential persons are ordered to immediately leave the area" via prescribed evacuation routes, people can stay in their homes if they insist. But they cannot expect to receive public services and "should not expect rescue or other lifesaving assistance after the onset of gale-force winds."

People who remain "do so at their own risk and shall be subject to arrest if they are outside the boundaries of their own property."

No unauthorized people, including residents, "will be permitted to return until conditions permit," and the mandatory evacuation order will be lifted "only at such time as public services are available in the area opened for re-entry."

The law says the third level, a forced evacuation, "may be ordered as a last resort when a disaster or emergency has been declared and danger of loss of life is imminent." Such evacuations "are designed for small geographic areas affected by a local emergency or disaster," apparently not for whole cities or parishes threatened by a hurricane.

In case of a forced evacuation, "government officials direct and compel all persons in designated evacuation areas to relocate to safer locations." Once such an order is issued, the law says, "unauthorized persons wherever found shall be subject to arrest or removal from the area."

Community activist Dyan French Cole, known as "Mama D," gained national publicity after Katrina as one of the residents who vowed they would never leave the flooded city, no matter how dire conditions grew.

In an angry speech, Cole told the council Thursday her position hasn't changed, though she seemed somewhat mollified when assured that a mandatory evacuation order would not compel her to leave her home.

Council members, led by Oliver Thomas, peppered Ebbert with questions about where buses filled with evacuees will go if an evacuation is ordered this year. Thomas said he fears many would be sent to places where local officials would not welcome the New Orleanians, would do nothing to help them and would even try to turn them away.

Ebbert said no buses would leave New Orleans without specific destinations where the evacuees would be guaranteed they could stay.

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Bruce Eggler can be reached at or (504) 826-3320.