Evacuations Are Admissions of Failure

When mass evacuation becomes the primary response to hurricanes and wildfires, leaders are admitting that they cannot protect their citizens from threats of climate change.

A family during Hurricane Ida.
Gerald Herbert / AP

About the author: John Biguenet is the Robert Hunter Distinguished University Professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. He is the author of six plays and seven books, including The Torturer’s Apprentice and Oyster, and a recipient of the O. Henry Award. 

Because the United States has no real plan to handle climate change, average citizens end up in situations like this: At 6 a.m. the day before Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana late last month, my wife and I joined half of New Orleans’s population in evacuating. The drive to our daughter’s home in Houston, usually a six-hour trip, took 18 grueling hours. Stuck in stop-and-go traffic, we inched along at five miles an hour. The most impatient evacuees sped along both shoulders of the interstate, forcing themselves into a traffic lane when a broken-down vehicle or a narrow bridge blocked their way.

We had prepared sandwiches before we left to avoid possible COVID-19 exposure at packed restaurants along the highway. Because our car had always made the trip to Houston on one tank of gas, we did not anticipate stopping along the way. But as the day wore on, our car’s thermometer rose to an outside temperature of 102 degrees, and our fuel gauge began to sink below a quarter of a tank. Fifteen hours after leaving home, we found an open gas station in a small Texas town, where other New Orleanians had stopped to fill up and ask directions to motels.

Images of Americans hurriedly evacuating from their homes are becoming commonplace as climate-related disasters grow in frequency and intensity. Just this past month, as my wife and I were leaving Louisiana, Californians fled the Caldor Fire as it surged toward Lake Tahoe. Mass evacuation, though, shouldn’t be routine. It is a last resort. When leaders choose it as their primary plan, they are admitting that they cannot protect their citizens from threats of climate change. They are, in effect, ceding responsibility to the individual. Those who stay and those who go are on their own.

Sixteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina sideswiped New Orleans while moving northward from the Gulf of Mexico. The storm itself left only moderate damage to the city. But in the hours after the storm, federal levees designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collapsed, flooding the city with saltwater more than 14 feet deep in some neighborhoods. Many people drowned in their own bedroom the first night of the flooding; others, trapped in their sweltering attic awaiting help that never arrived, died of heat and dehydration.

For months after, people—those who stayed and those who returned—were left without potable water, electricity, reliable telephone service, postal delivery, police patrols, stoplights, public schools, scheduled garbage pickup, street repairs, and many of the other public services on which modern urban life depends. The tragedy that shocked television viewers around the world was one of the first glimpses of how climate change would overwhelm unprepared governments. As I wrote at the time, “New Orleans is simply where the future arrived first.”

I’ve lived in New Orleans for most of my life. Katrina was our family’s first evacuation. We eventually traveled thousands of miles from refuge in Dallas to a longer stay in New Jersey, before returning home five weeks after the city had flooded. In our still-damp house, mold crawled up walls and over furniture that had floated from one room to another. With our house uninhabitable, my wife and I slept in a day-care center until we found half of a shotgun duplex to rent in the 20 percent of New Orleans that did not flood. We spent the next few months gutting and cleaning our ruined house, for which we were still paying a mortgage at the same time that we were paying rent. Then a contractor took over and rebuilt the house to the point that, a year after Katrina and the collapse of the city’s levees, we could live in our second story while work continued downstairs. With a place to live and our jobs still secure, we considered ourselves lucky—at least compared with the thousands of New Orleanians who had lost their home, their family members, or both.

No one who has lived in a ruined city through the years it takes to rebuild forgets the emotional toll of the experience. Living under the constant threat of yet another evacuation and possible catastrophic damage gradually erodes the will to stay. In the year following Katrina, the population of New Orleans plummeted from 455,000 to 188,000; building back to even the pre-Ida figure of 380,000 has taken 15 years.

Lake Charles, a city about halfway between New Orleans and Houston, faced widespread devastation one year ago after two hurricanes—Laura and then Delta six weeks later—struck the area. Laura, equal in force to Ida, was then the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Louisiana since 1856. As Carly Berlin reported in Southerly, “According to the USPS data, Lake Charles, La.—a city hit by back-to-back hurricanes during the most severe Atlantic hurricane season on record—tops the list for out-migration between 2019 and 2020 out of 926 metro areas surveyed.”

The effects of wildfires are similar. A year after the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed much of Paradise, California, more than 90 percent of the town’s 27,000 residents had not returned. The current population is about 6,000.

If evacuations are not the answer, then what can be done? Governments that are committed to protecting public safety must work to fundamentally change the conditions that threaten their residents. In 1953, a North Sea flood in the Netherlands killed 1,836 people—very close to the estimated death toll in Katrina. The low-lying country—much of which is below sea level or less than a meter above it—began an ambitious flood-control program. Enacting the Delta Works plan in 1954 and completing the project in 1997, the Netherlands has succeeded in protecting its citizens from a major environmental threat. But what evidence exists that the United States is capable of safeguarding the citizens most immediately endangered by climate change, especially when one of our two main political parties continues to deny the existence of such change?

Despite significant improvements to the New Orleans levees since 2005, evacuation remains the primary response to major hurricanes. State and local governments have adopted elaborate “contraflow” strategies that dedicate all traffic lanes in a single direction away from the zone of destruction. However, this strategy of last resort has its limitations. As New Orleans officials pointed out as the recent storm approached the city, such a plan requires at least 72 hours to execute.

Ida was still a tropical depression in the Caribbean Sea just 68 hours before it slammed into the Louisiana coast on August 29 as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained 150-mile-an-hour winds. So the state’s carefully constructed plan could not be implemented, and 200,000 New Orleanians, along with tens of thousands of other Louisianians, crowded the two lanes of Interstate 10 west in a traffic jam that stretched nearly unbroken from New Orleans to the Texas state line. Ida won’t be the last storm for which evacuation is essentially impossible.

During this most recent experience, the city’s planning shifted to include what Collin Arnold, New Orleans’s director of emergency preparedness, described in The New York Times as “post-storm evacuation.” He noted, “We’re not intentionally choosing it. It’s changes in the climate that are doing it to us.” The ferocity and speed of hurricanes fueled by climate change may dictate that we simply hunker down in the path of the storm while the government prepares to try to get us out of the damaged city after the hurricane passes.

Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, recently announced that “many of the life-supporting infrastructure elements are not present, they’re not operating right now. So if you have already evacuated, do not return.” Although the advice is understandable in the aftermath of a Category 4 hurricane, the governor’s notice to evacuees may well be heeded literally.

My family has lived in New Orleans for hundreds of years, weathering yellow-fever epidemics, citywide fires, wars, hurricanes, and floods. Sooner or later, though, as climate change worsens, an evacuation will be ordered from which none of us will choose to return.