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Officials unveil evacuation plan
Tourists included in crisis readiness
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
By Frank Donze Staff writer

New Orleanians and visitors without transportation who are ordered to evacuate in advance of a hurricane will be able to gather at a dozen sites across the city that will be used to move them out of town, emergency preparedness officials said Monday. Advertisement

But where evacuees ultimately wind up remains unclear three weeks into the new storm season.

The 12 pick-up locations were submitted to the Ground Transportation Committee of the City Council, whose responsibilities include oversight of the city's hurricane evacuation procedures.

The sites are divided into two categories: one for senior citizens and residents with special needs and another for the general population.

Under the plan, the elderly and infirm would be given the option to assemble at three locations -- and possibly a fourth that is not yet nailed down -- from where they would ride Regional Transit Authority buses to the Union Passenger Terminal downtown. All others would be instructed to assemble at nine scattered sites where RTA buses would deliver them to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

From the Union Passenger Terminal, elderly evacuees would board Amtrak trains for transport out of the city. Anyone taken to the convention center would be transferred to other buses destined for shelters elsewhere in Louisiana or in neighboring states.

Asked Monday to name the final destinations, State Police officials told council members that Gov. Kathleen Blanco is expected to identify a list of shelter sites in the near future.

While the Blanco administration has identified only one shelter location to date, staffers said recently that they would include three categories.

For example, the general population would go to sites such as school gymnasiums and other public buildings that would house smaller groups of evacuees. Those shelters can accommodate 55,000, officials said.

Next on the list are "state-identified, medical special-needs shelters." That group, which covers people who need access to electricity for life-saving medical equipment, would accommodate more than 2,000.

The third category, "state-identified critical transportation-needs shelters, are large sites that could take thousands of evacuees at a time, officials said. Only one such site has been publicly named, the State Farm Building in Monroe. That building, which the state hopes to turn into the new Delta Community College, will be able to house 6,000 evacuees.

Blanco has said that other sites are under consideration, including the Cajundome in Lafayette.

Before departing New Orleans, all evacuees will be processed at the Union Passenger Terminal and the Convention Center, which will be staffed with medical and security personnel, said Jerry Tate, a planner in the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security.

Addressing a problem that dogged the Katrina evacuation procedure, Tate said the plan calls for "no separation of families."

Furthermore, he said pets, as long as they are caged, will be allowed to travel to the same sites as evacuees. The exception, he said, will be pets belonging to anyone with special medical needs; in those cases, however, he said, an owner will know the pet's whereabouts through a bar-coding procedure.

As for tourists lacking transportation when an evacuation order is issued, the plan calls for staging areas at three as-yet-unidentified downtown hotels where RTA buses, hotel shuttles, cabs and limos would be used to take visitors to Armstrong International Airport.

The tourist component of the strategy is the "wild card," Joseph Matthews, director of the city's Office of Emergency Preparedness, told the council committee.

That part of the evacuation plan could involve anywhere from a few thousand tourists to 20,000-plus, Matthews said. If the city's hotels are full when the next big storm approaches, he said, the federal government is committed to sending charter flights to New Orleans; in addition, local car rental companies would be urged to brace for a wave of unexpected customers.

"We don't want tourists in shelters," Matthews said. "We want to get them out of here."

When it comes to moving the elderly and those with medical problems, Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who chairs the committee, said she is hopeful that the city's depleted post-Katrina population will make the numbers "a little more manageable."

But Willard-Lewis said the city's next mandatory evacuation may be saddled with a new and potentially dangerous problem: the ubiquitous debris piles that still litter many main roads nearly 10 months after Katrina.

She urged State Police officials to help find a way to remove the mess that could block roads just as traffic gets heavy. "It's time to stop the finger-pointing," she said, "about who can't pay for it and who won't pay for it."

Regional Transit Authority spokeswoman Rosalind Blanco Cook told council members that the agency's bus drivers are "committed" to assisting with evacuations.

Last month, Mayor Ray Nagin said RTA drivers would be declared essential personnel and would be required to report to work in the event of a hurricane.

In a departure from what was done before Katrina, Nagin said neither the Superdome nor the Convention Center will be used as a refuge.

Nagin said he is likely to order an evacuation 30 to 36 hours before the eye of the hurricane comes ashore near the city, in line with the state plan that coordinates New Orleans' evacuation with other southeastern Louisiana parishes.

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Frank Donze can be reached at or (504) 826-3328.