U.S.|Some who stayed to ride out the storm are having second thoughts.
By Katy Reckdahl and Chelsea Brasted
Aug. 29, 2021Updated 3:42 p.m. ET
NEW ORLEANS — As storm-force winds and rainfall reached the New Orleans area on Sunday morning, knocking out power in some places and making highway travel dangerous, it was already too late to leave. Still, some people in the city were second-guessing their decision to stay.
“I’m a little nervous,” said Le-Ann Williams, 30, as she cooked breakfast and watched the forecast in her New Orleans East apartment.
The roads west and east of New Orleans were parking lots for much of Saturday as tens of thousands of people tried to make their way out of the storm’s predicted path. It took Robert Green Sr. 16 hours to get to Houston from New Orleans on Saturday, ordinarily a five-hour drive.
At the same time, thousands more decided to stay put.
Shawn Kelly meant to leave. He does not have a car, so he booked a flight out. But by Saturday afternoon, he got a notification that the flight had been canceled, and social media posts showed hourslong lines at the airport.
So the stage was set: He’d try to ride out Hurricane Ida in his parents’ home in the Uptown area of New Orleans — the same place where he and his family tried to ride out Katrina in 2005, when he was 10 years old. Back then, the family wound up having to be rescued, a scenario he hopes won’t be repeated.
“I wish I could leave, because the next couple days without power are going to be the worst part,” Mr. Kelly said. “I’m worried about the aftermath, more so than the storm, because that was the thing with Katrina; it was the aftermath. I’m always worried about what comes after.”
For New Orleans leaders, the question is what will happen to those who stayed behind if Ida’s destruction makes conditions uninhabitable.
The answer is “post-storm evacuation,” said Collin Arnold, the city’s director of emergency preparedness. Urban search-and-rescue teams were prepared, and buses have been placed on high ground, ready to carry people out of town on Monday, once the storm blows through.
Older people in the city often talk proudly of never having evacuated, even in the face of serious storms like Hurricane Betsy in 1965. But Mr. Arnold said the plans for post-storm rescues were not an endorsement of that bravado, just an acknowledgment that fast-moving storms like Ida may leave little time for evacuation.
“We’re not intentionally choosing it,” he said. “It’s changes in the climate that are doing it to us.”
Evacuation is a crucial part of the disaster plan in a city where one in five households lack cars. But to be effective, the evacuation process should begin 72 hours before a storm hits. And Ida, a sprinter of a storm, was little more than a tropical disturbance in the Caribbean on Thursday afternoon, when Mayor LaToya Cantrell would have had to issue the order.
“Time was not on our side,” Ms. Cantrell said on Friday as she encouraged residents to voluntarily evacuate, but it was too late for a mandatory order.
Tens of thousands of people weighed their options and decided to hunker down. Some were optimistic that the city’s improved levees and pumps would hold this time. For others who had already paid their monthly bills, money was too short to travel now.
“Evacuation will always be the safest option for major hurricanes,” Mr. Arnold said. “Before Katrina, there were locals who would say, ‘I don’t leave for storms.’ Katrina changed that mind set. Now climate change may be changing it for us again.”