Gustav evacuees still wary, and weary

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

Mario Villafuerte
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.

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.

"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.

But many residents also reported more alarm this time. "This evacuation was a lot more panicky because of Katrina," says Sonya Williams of Gulfport, Miss., who was staying with family in Oxford, Miss. "When I left before Katrina, I wasn't as anxious: I gave a little more thought to what I was bringing. Whereas this time, it was: 'Let's just go and get out as soon as we can.' "

Ms. Williams and her son, mother, father, uncle, and grandmother all stayed with her sister in Oxford. While it was a 10-hour drive through bumper-to-bumper traffic Sunday to get there, the family had one another for support. Williams says she joked with her sister about whether she'd had enough of "the refugees," and on Monday, they even had a small Labor Day cookout to ease the anxiety.

Her experience is that of someone who has resources that can help her cope. Before every hurricane season, she puts a little extra in savings. "A hotel room at $130 a night can add up fast," she says. And when a hurricane starts heading to the Gulf Coast, she also starts making hotel reservations east and west, so her family will have somewhere to go wherever it strikes. This time, she had seven extra hotel rooms reserved in Oxford that she was able to turn over to friends who needed a place to stay.

"There's this psychological theory called the 'conservation of resources,' which is used to explain how people adjust to major disasters," says Professor Wadsworth. "The idea is that if you have resources in one area, say financial, you're more likely to have resources in others, like good community support and adequate employment. But vulnerable people tend not to have many resources in any area, so that's a good explanation of why some people are less resilient than others."

Indeed, some people in staying in public shelters expressed higher levels of frustration with their situation as well as the government's response.

On Sunday morning, New Orleans resident Esther Tyson put her children on a bus that was headed to a shelter in faraway Birmingham, Ala. Ms. Tyson then crammed into a small car with her cousin and nieces for what became a grueling eight-hour ride to Hattiesburg, where they found shelter at Oak Grove High School. When they arrived, there weren't enough cots, and food wasn't immediately available. She was tired, irritable, and worried about her children in Birmingham.

She and her cousin, both single moms, had only $100 between them when they left, and that was running out. Now that she is facing at least a few more days in the shelter, Tyson is questioning the motives of the political leaders who demanded 100 percent evacuation.

"This is how they cover their behinds for the Katrina disaster. That's politics for you," she says. "If I'd had to do it again, I'd take my chances and stay. I don't think people understand how depressing and stressful this is."

For Williams and her family, the experience of rebuilding after Katrina – even with all its stumbling blocks – as well as the improved government response this time have reinforced their already-strong sense of faith.

"One thing we know for sure now, that even if we lose everything again, even if we feel like we won't have the energy to rebuild again, we know we can because we've already done it," Williams says. "Material things can always be replaced as long as we have our lives."

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