Gustav holdouts' tales give evacuees pause
Their experiences could provide valuable lessons about evacuation versus staying put.
After curfew on Wednesday night, two National Guard soldiers traded their rifles for a guitar and some drumsticks.Skip to next paragraph
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Taking the stage at a tiny lounge in the French Quarter, they plunged into a blues riff that, by the end, became a new song called the "Rockin' Army Blues."
Meanwhile, at a hurricane party in the Uptown neighborhood on the eve of hurricane Gustav's landfall, locals gathered on the front stoop to compare firearms as one young woman cradled a shotgun like she was holding a baby.
The night after Gustav came ashore, small squads of storm holdouts and National Guardsmen played an elaborate game of curfew cat-and-mouse. But they finally gave up as everyone ended up at the Maple Leaf lounge for a late-night gab session.
As Mayor Ray Nagin lifted checkpoints a day early Wednesday to allow residents to return, the few thousand New Orleanians who stayed put for Gustav will regale some quarter-million returning evacuees with such mirthful, and true, storm stories, often in sharp contrast to tales of evacuation frustration from a weather event described in the aftermath as little more than a prolonged thunderstorm.
The role of story-swapping
Indeed, nearly as important as official warnings and news bulletins, front porch story-swapping among storm survivors plays a critical role in how Americans respond to the next looming megastorm. Now, US emergency officials are trying to listen in, increasingly keen to understand a basic, but crucial, concept of storm planning: A good evacuation, like a good story, is all in the details.
"The big truths, universal truths, profound truths about these storms do come out of the kind of day-to-day experiences that people remember and confront," says Louis Kyriakoudes, director of the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. "There's a singular and unique value in how people perceive what has happened to them."
While Katrina created thousands of both tragic and heroic stories that have been spun into countless yarns, articles, masters' theses, and books, Gustav's more mundane story lines are now becoming clear: Holdouts hunkered down, emerging to calmly walk their dogs and sweep up after the storm. Evacuees endured 12-hour car rides, shelters without enough cots, and then began running out of supplies and money as law enforcement kept them from returning.
To be sure, the decision on whether or not to evacuate again depends on more than perceptions and observations of hardship. In fact, researchers say, the two camps – the stayers and the leavers – tend to stick to their methods. Since Katrina, both federal and state officials have tried to wear down the resolve of those who historically stay, tapping into the gruesome memories from Katrina to drive home the message. This time, it appeared to have worked as the Gustav evacuation became the largest in US history, with over 2 million people leaving the Gulf Coast starting three days before the storm hit.
"An adventure is just misfortune properly reconsidered," says Michael Lindell, director of the Hazard Reducation and Recovery Center in College Station, Texas. "It's not a very large proportion of evacuees, even if the hurricane fails to strike their community, that will say, 'I won't go next time.' Most people are influenced consistently by conditions."