Mike Huckabee's Remark Reflects Attitude Toward Evacuation

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee recently attracted consternation for saying that New Orleans residents who did not evacuate for Hurricane Katrina had been lulled to inertia by climate change activists who exaggerate the threat of dangerous weather.

It's unclear why the Republican presidential candidate considers himself knowledgable on this subject.

Huckabee's experience with evacuations is limited to being alerted by emergency officials in September 2005 that Arkansas may need to accept Hurricane Katrina evacuees. That actually did not pan out.

Indeed, the facts do not support Huckabee. But the remark also highlights how misunderstood the concept of evacuation is.

Those who have never evacuated to avoid calamity tend to think an evacuation is a holiday trip "over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house we go."

Evacuations are always relatively sudden, stressful and difficult. Incoming information changes by the hour. They are expensive especially when you factor in lost wages. And they can be dangerous.

In the face of Hurricane Rita in September 2005 when Texas's mayor asked Houston residents to evacuate by saying "Don't follow the example of New Orleans," there was gridlock, emergencies and empty gas stations. The evacuation contributed to 60 deaths including 24 nursing home residents on a bus that caught fire and exploded.

And all too often, the evacuation turns out to be for naught.

In September 2004, over half of New Orleans residents evacuated in advance of Hurricane Ivan using the state's contraflow plan for the first time. (On-ramps work, exit ramps don't, and there is nowhere to go but out.) But delays were horrific, and many went back home to watch Ivan sputter out.

Nonetheless, Ivan exposed a contraflow plan in need of revision, and one year later, preceding Katrina, the state, without any federal assistance, would evacuate 93 percent of Greater New Orleans. It would be cited as the most successful rapid evacuation of a major city in American history.

But clearly, not nearly enough attention was paid to those without a car, credit cards, road experience and a network of family and friends outside the city.

Analyses show that the elderly are the least likely to evacuate due to reasons ranging from stubbornness to staying to care for a beloved pet.

Analyses also show that the primary reason that the Katrina evacuation did not save more lives was due to the failure of levees and floodwalls built by the Army Corps of Engineers .

Two days before Katrina's landfall, Max Mayfield, then-director of the National Hurricane Center personally called Mayor Ray Nagin, telling him that some levees in greater New Orleans could be overtopped.

Those who stayed knew they would lose electricity and perhaps get some soggy carpets. But no one predicted the levees themselves would break.

After Katrina, many businesses relocated to other cities because evacuations themselves shut down businesses.

No one should treat the call to evacuate as something simple or obvious. Experienced evacuation volunteers can all agree that even in the best of circumstances, an evacuation is a living nightmare.