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As Hurricane Irene Hits the East Coast, Let's Not Forget the Lessons of the Last Big Storm to Shake America

Hurricane Katrina hit nearly 6 years ago. As the Northeast readies for a major storm, who's being left out of the disaster preparation?

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New Orleans, Palast reported, had no such plan before Katrina.

“Long after 2,000 drowned, I found the "plan": no provision at all for the 27,000 residents without cars. That's not surprising: the hurricane evacuation contractor had zero experience in hurricane evacuation. Rather, IEM's chief did have lots of experience in donating to the Republican Party.”

And, of course, thousands of public housing units were later bulldozed and replaced with luxury condos.


Mayor Bloomberg wants New Yorkers to know this is serious—so his office has taken to  tweeting admonishments to citizens like “If you are in Zone A, prepare to evacuate asap. Don’t be complacent. Even though the sun is shining now, don’t be fooled.” New Yorkers on Twitter are presumably  meant to be reassured by “We’ve never done a mandatory evacuation before – and we wouldn’t be doing this now if we didn’t think this was serious.”

But in all the  press announcements of mandatory evacuation, nowhere were there instructions on how to evacuate without transport. The city's  evacuation brochure lists helpful things like what you should pack, but not how you should get there. And as for prisoners, well, they're stuck: Rikers Island will not be evacuated.

FEMA may have learned something from Katrina at least,  tweeting “#Hurricane #Irene: Text SHELTER + ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find nearest shelter in ur area (example: shelter 12345).”

Nona Willis Aronowitz makes the point, though, that:

“. . . in a place like New York, where hurricanes happen approximately never, your safety depends on your access to information. People in North Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida know to keep their ears to the ground, but how do you get the word out in a place where the  last serious hurricane happened in 1938? I live in a pretty low-income building in a low-income area, and I'm willing to bet that many of my neighbors don't have Internet access. If they choose not to turn on the news that day, they might be shit out of luck when their power goes off.”

The Northeast already faced one unusual natural disaster this week. The brief rumble felt across several states from Virginia's 5.8 earthquake should have reminded New Yorkers that anything can happen, but it almost seemed to reinforce our feeling of invincibility instead, as sarcastic jokes took over Twitter almost immediately.


Meanwhile, six years on, New Orleans is still rebuilding. It's a smaller city and a whiter one since the storm, but even neighborhoods like the ravaged Lower Ninth Ward are coming back, albeit slowly. The city just announced  $45 million in federal funds to repair streets in that neighborhood that are still flood-damaged.

"Eric and I are buying a house during hurricane season, it is still so present in everyone's mind. It's an unspoken worry on all of our faces," said Courtney Bayer, a longtime New Orleans resident who, like many in the city, works in the service and tourism industry. "And it is a fact of life that the city is divided and will remain divided between the People Who Were Here and the People Who Were Not Here. They are like two different races of people, with different histories." 

Organizing among residents helped with rebuilding, according to one  USA Today article. "When you have solidarity of people of different economic groups, there's a power to that and that can make a big difference," Allison Plyer of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center told reporter Rick Jervis. But some neighborhoods remain empty, with boarded-up homes and the few residents left without services.

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