Our Government Needs a Better Hurricane Management Plan Now

It’s easy to point the finger at private sector nursing home operators like Bob Dean and others who house the elderly and infirm for the recent deaths of those shoe-horned into a Tangipahoa Parish warehouse or left to suffer in sweltering apartments in metro New Orleans.

The real culprits are our local, state and federal elected officials who have instituted a mish-mash set of rules and regulations with little or no monitoring resulting in low dollar fines that barely raise an eyebrow. 

Is Bob Dean a callous, money-grubbing millionaire that really doesn’t care about the elderly his companies’ house? Probably. Does he care enough about his employees to pay them a good living wage so that they are willing to go above and beyond no matter what the circumstances? Probably not. 

Is the nursing home industry so powerful in Louisiana that strict rules and big-dollar fines might never be put in place? Absolutely. 

Hurricane Ida did sneak up on New Orleans. We haven’t had a storm of her magnitude in 16 years. But climate change is here. Storms are more frequent and more deadly. The same crisis management plan that Mayor Nagin and his City Council put in place after Katrina simply doesn’t work anymore. 

Maybe planning for the pandemic impacted planning for the 2021 Hurricane season. If a thoughtful and comprehensive hurricane season plan that looked at all scenarios had already existed, it should have only needed minor tweaking when Ida appeared. Obviously there was massive confusion and missteps that should force long-term change. 

Many citizens have been complaining that Mayor Cantrell did not call for a mandatory evacuation, did not offer transportation out of the city in advance of the storm for those who felt vulnerable or without vehicles, and also did not open a shelter where that same population could ride out the storm. In fact, Cantrell said there was not adequate time to put in place a contra-flow plan which the State Police would have operated. Instead, she urged citizens to gather adequate provisions and shelter in. We all know how that worked. 

Did anyone hear the Mayor or Councilmembers call out to operators of non-nursing home senior facilities to ensure they had a fully operational emergency evacuation plan in place? Were family members notified that they might want to come get their relatives? 

After the storm hit, whose cell phone was working the next day? Who was able to watch television, listen to the radio or use the internet? Maybe millennials were smart enough to figure out how to communicate without those tools but most seniors were not. They were sitting in the dark, in the heat, with no idea what was going on in the outside world. Most probably did not have access to battery operated radios and tvs which became the lifeline for so many.

Was this how our elders should be treated? Of course not. But without firm rules in place as to what are the operator’s responsibilities and the staff to monitors compliance ahead of time, it’s really no surprise that the elderly were dying not from the wind or from a fallen tree but because the very people to whom they had entrusted their lives weren’t really prepared or didn’t care enough to do the right thing.

Kudos to Councilmember Palmer for preparing an ordinance to address how the elderly should be treated during a storm. Why wasn’t such a document drafted years ago by Palmer or any other member of any past Administration? Surely the legislation’s introduction is not being driven by politics. 

Hurricane season isn’t over yet. Another storm could easily head in our direction – if not this year, next year for sure. It is past time for City leaders to rethink a hurricane season crisis management plan. What is the trigger for mandatory evacuations? Should pre-storm evacuation always be available for the elderly and other vulnerable populations? Should there always be a city-wide shelter available before the storm hits?     

New Orleans has a strong-mayor, strong-council form of government. The branches are co-equal but don’t often act that way. Citizens should expect – actually demand- a robust conversation on these subjects in which they can have input as well. Though the city and its citizens suffered considerable damage from Ida, New Orleans should recover. Next time, we might not be so lucky. Let’s fine tune the hurricane plan before that happens. 

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