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Gustav holdouts' tales give evacuees pause

Their experiences could provide valuable lessons about evacuation versus staying put.

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Yet it was precisely the US government's disinterest in the anecdotal wisdom of veteran regional Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) managers that led to the fiasco of Katrina, says Mr. Lindell. In fact, one reason for the myriad mishaps and blunders that characterized the Katrina evacuation, rescue, and recovery had to do with a philosophical shift in the Bush administration, where political appointees at the bureaucratic level had little use for anecdotal wisdom and survivor surveys that have historically informed regional FEMA managers.

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Now, FEMA and state emergency response agencies are beginning to pay closer attention again to taxpayer-funded research, including $150,000 worth of studies done by Texas A&M University and a comprehensive oral history project at the University of Southern Mississippi, that tries to gauge the anecdotal experiences of evacuees and how those stories affect future decisions.

"People think about these types of things," says Lindell. "Some will come back and say they spent miserable nights leaving and trying to come back while other people stayed home and had a party. Some of those people will definitely say, 'I'm not going to make that mistake again of leaving.'"

The need to share the lessons

To many storm survivors, stories – whether the drama-heavy warnings of Mayor Nagin or the recollections of makeshift militias patrolling New Orleans after Katrina – supply a human need to share information, lessons, tragedy, and wonderment, all of which, to some, reaffirm how people have confronted storms through generations.

Bartender Travis Phelps, for example, says he emerged after the worst of Gustav, walked to the Mississippi River levee, and stood atop it in wonder. "It was like that movie 'I Am Legend,'" he says. "It felt like I was alone in the world."

Juan Parke, a lanky, lifelong New Orleanian, became part of a makeshift militia after hurricane Katrina, based at the boarded-up Maple Leaf lounge. Parke's son, Deen, was too young to stay for Katrina, but, now 13, he insisted on staying with his father for Gustav. At the high point of the storm Monday morning, inspired by his father's tales, Deen stepped out into the street to lean against the lashing winds.

"We're storytelling creatures," says Parke. "This goes back to the Iliad, with one guy telling another guy a really interesting story about what happened to him."

But for all the blustery storm stories told on the stoop of the Maple Leaf, the stories that sometimes don't get told are about the primal dread that hangers-on fight back and don't always talk about, says Hank Staples, owner of the tavern.

The Maple Leaf served as a kind of armory during Katrina, including "swap tables" of emergency goods, which law enforcement officials appreciated. Yet there was a palpable tension this time, Mr. Staples says, as authorities worried that the stories of hangers-on threatened to undermine the official evacuation rhetoric.

"On the one hand, [law enforcement] appreciates what we're doing," says Staples. "On the other hand, they're worried we create the impression to those returning to the city that these storms are harmless."