THE BLOG
09/07/2015 07:51 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2016

Hurricane Evacuations Will Remain Tough for Many Black New Orleanians

This blog is based on an article in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Sept. 7, 2015 edition.

In the fall of 2005, 100,000 mostly Black residents of New Orleans and surrounding areas found themselves housed in Houston. "African Americans who owned cars drove to Atlanta," Robert Bullard, Dean of Texas Southern University's School of Public Affairs, said last week. "Those who didn't were bused to Houston." On Sept. 3 of that year, 1,300 buses were ordered to get people out of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The next night, the dome had been evacuated, and bus convoys were headed to Texas and other safe places.

If a Category 3 or greater storm struck now, some things at least would be different. Ten years ago, the city's plan was for people without cars to leave home, but to shelter in town, and that meant the dome, the convention center and a few other sites. Havens for people with special needs were available upstate.

Improving on that, New Orleans drew up a City-Assisted Evacuation strategy more than five years ago to speed over 30,000 people out of town on coach buses as quickly as possible. "It's a plan that's also engineered to work in reverse and bring people home," David Morris, executive director of nonprofit Evacuteer on Lafayette St., said last week. In 2013, the city designated 17 Evacuspots or pick-up points, marked by 14-foot sculptures.

But Bullard said it won't be easy for many African Americans to leave or return in the next big storm, whether it's under their own steam or the city's auspices. He knows New Orleans well, having tracked its post-Katrina recovery with executive director Beverly Wright of Dillard University's Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

For the city as a whole, over 19 percent of residents didn't have cars in 2013, Bullard said, citing nonprofit RIDE New Orleans' numbers. "For Blacks, the number without cars is much higher, however," he noted. When Katrina struck, an estimated 34 percent of Black residents didn't own autos.

Bullard said other factors, too, leave African Americans vulnerable if a storm's coming. Prices of formerly affordable housing have escalated, especially since the city decided to raze the Big Four housing projects in 2007 and replace them with fewer, mixed-income units. Job wages have lagged behind the post-storm rise in rents. "The number of Black children living in poverty has actually grown in New Orleans, and the gap between Black and white incomes has widened," he said.

In July, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans estimated that the city's Black children younger than 18, dwelling in poverty, rose by 6.5 percent from 2005 to 2013. The gap between the median incomes of Black and white households swelled 18 percent over that span. Blacks made up 59 percent of the city's population in 2013, down from 66 percent in 2005.

Bullard explained why tens of thousands of Black New Orleanians still live in the Houston area though many want to go home. He used the example of teachers. They'd been the backbone of the Crescent City's middle class but many of them remain in the Lone Star State. In 2006, New Orleans laid off over 7,000 mostly African American, women teachers because schools hadn't reopened. Systems in Texas hired a number of them.

"For many Black evacuees in Houston, no jobs back home, no car and less housing stock and escalating rents in New Orleans gave them no options to return," Bullard said. In December 2005, he authored "Katrina and the Second Disaster: A Twenty-Point Plan to Destroy Black New Orleans." He said then that thousands of evacuees had been sent to over three dozen states on one-way tickets.

Later, New Orleans rehired some of its fired teachers but it also hired hundreds of mainly young, white Teach For America corps members. Today, most of the city's students attend charter schools. According to ULGNO, Black students have made big strides in graduation rates and college attendance since 2005.

But Bullard said a number of still-financially-strapped, Black families will find it tough to cope with another evacuation. And they'll be dependent on others while they're away.

Since 2005, the city's storm barriers have been fortified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and evacuation logistics have been streamlined. Under the CAE, city buses will pick people up at the 17 Evacuspots, marked by sculptures built in 2013. Four of those locations are equipped for senior citizens. Residents are asked to register at nola.gov/ready for the CAE service. It wouldn't hurt to do that now if you think you might need a way out someday.

City buses will take evacuees to Union Passenger Terminal, where they'll transfer to coach buses destined for state and federal shelters. Evacuteer has signed up 500 volunteers to assist with luggage and boardings in New Orleans. "We have 500 people who, before they leave town themselves, are committed to help other residents get on these buses safely," Morris said.

One small carry-on per person will be allowed on board. Passengers can bring vaccinated pets -- with collars and ID tags -- as long as they're in carriers or on leashes. Needless to say, knives, other weapons, alcohol and illegal drugs will be banned.

The Arts Council of New Orleans and the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness commissioned the 17 Evacuspot sculptures, designed by Massachusetts artist Douglas Kornfeld. They depict someone signaling a ride. The installation's $200,000 price tag may sound high, but the City of New Orleans Percent For Art Program -- funded by municipal bonds -- dedicated $100,000 and Evacuteer raised $100,000.

As for the CAE's return ticket, when the Mayor's Office lifts an evacuation order, someone sheltered in Monroe, La. or out of state should be able to get a ride home. At that stage, check nola.gov/ready on your cell phone. Administrators plan to have coaches bring residents back to UPT, where city buses will deliver them to their original Evacuspots.

Evacuations are stressful and expensive for everyone, no matter how you get out. "Even if you have a vehicle, it may only get you across town, and you may not have money for gas and food on the highway," Morris said. "It costs about $250 per day for a family of four from New Orleans to evacuate and stay away, with gas, meals, lodging and other essentials." When residents who have drained their pocket books return to the city after a storm, a rash of applications for food stamps and other assistance almost always occurs.