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Gustav evacuees still wary, and weary

Many who fled hurricane Gustav felt far more anxiety than during Katrina.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 2008

FURRY EVACUEES: In Bossier City, La., a volunteer at the animal shelter kept track of pets Monday checked in by owners who themselves took refuge from hurricane Gustav in the city or nearby Shreveport.

Mario Villafuerte

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Houston; and Hattiesburg, Miss.

For many who fled the path of hurricane Gustav, there's a sense that the worst is over. But most evacuees also have an unease that won't dissipate until they're able to unlock their own front doors and see for themselves what damage – if any – Gustav wrought in their absence.

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"We're a little bit better now because it's gone, but we still have the anxiety of not knowing yet what it did," says Shantrell Nicks, a lawyer and business owner from Gulfport, Miss., who was staying with family in Hattiesburg.

Calls to evacuate because of a hurricane threat have long been a part of life on the Gulf Coast. Yet prior to Katrina in 2005, the last deadly hurricane to hit the city was Betsy in 1965. After that, the Gulf Coast had been pretty much spared, and a kind of evacuation fatigue set in. But the devastation wrought by Katrina and the threat posed by Gustav have brought about a fundamental change in many Gulf Coast residents.

Think of it as the Repeat Evacuation Blues.

As residents left their homes this time, many say they felt far more anxiety than during Katrina – even though this evacuation was far more orderly than the one in 2005.

The experiences of many evacuees elucidated distinctions between those who had their own resources – whether financial or spiritual – and those more dependent on the government for help.

"If you draw on the stress literature, the kind of constant on-the-alert mentality created by the threat of repeated evacuations keeps your physiological stress system activated," says Martha Wadsworth, professor of psychology at the University of Denver who studies the impact of disasters like Katrina. "The folks who are able to be the most resilient through this are people who have lots of good resources, whether it's a well-connected religious community or more financial resources."

With hurricane Gustav downgraded Tuesday morning to a tropical depression, one of the largest evacuations in America's history has been pronounced on the whole a success – especially when compared with the chaos surrounding hurricane Katrina three years ago.

Many of the almost 2 million Gulf Coast residents who jammed Louisiana and Mississippi highways over the weekend in caravans of crowded cars and overloaded buses are ready to turn around and head home.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin says they could be welcomed back in the "Big Easy" late Wednesday or Thursday, despite the looming storm threat of Hanna, which is now brewing over the Bahamas, and Ike, which is speeding west over the Atlantic.

When the order came down to get out of the way of what was billed as "the mother of all storms," more than 95 percent of people on the Gulf Coast heeded the call.

"People now have it down. They have their bags packed, their photo albums and their documents ready, but the toll [evacuations take] is still enormous," says Alice Fothergill, a sociologist who specializes in displacements and evacuations at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

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