Fewer than half of all New Orleans evacuees living in emergency shelters here said they will move back home, while two-thirds of those who want to relocate planned to settle permanently in the Houston area, according to a survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.Yes, the transfer of so many people from one location to other locations will have an impact, but it could also provide the impetus for starting a new life. It reminds me of the adage that a crisis can also be an opportunity.
The wide-ranging poll found that these survivors of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath remain physically and emotionally battered but unbroken. They praised God and the U.S. Coast Guard for saving them, but two weeks after the storm, nearly half still sought word about missing loved ones or close friends who may not have been as lucky.
Most already know they have no home left to return to. The overwhelming majority lack insurance to cover their losses. Few have bank checking accounts, savings accounts or credit cards that work. Still, nearly nine in 10 said they were "hopeful" about the future. And while half said they felt depressed about what lies ahead, just a third said they were afraid.
"I'm setting goals for myself, and I'm ready to conquer them," said Lakisha Morris, 30, who was plucked from her roof and spent two nights outdoors on an interstate highway before boarding a bus for Houston. She said she wants to start her own business in this city, possibly day care for the children of fellow evacuees.
The poll vividly documents the immediate and dramatic changes that Hurricane Katrina has brought to two major American cities. It also suggests that what may be occurring is a massive -- and, perhaps, permanent -- transfer of a block of poor people from one city to another. That may have social, economic and political consequences that will be felt for decades, if not generations, in both communities.
The survey also casts some light on why these people did not evacuate before the storm.
A third of those who stayed said they never heard the mandatory order to evacuate issued by the mayor the day before the storm hit. Somewhat fewer -- 28 percent -- said they heard the order but did not understand what they were to do. Thirty-six percent acknowledged they heard the order, understood it but did not leave. In hindsight, 56 percent said they could have evacuated, while 42 percent said it was impossible.It sounds as if close to two/thirds did not evacuate because they either didn't know of the evacuation order or didn't understand its urgency. We need to be sure, in the future, that such orders are fully communicated to the populace and that they understand how important it is. An annoucement on TV and radio is not enough. Bullhorn trucks in the streets perhaps. A contact-tree system of talking to people all the way down to the block level. Yes, 42% of the people might not have evacuated, but just imagine if the other 6% of those who hadn't left for Katrina had gotten the message and had gotten out. I hope that city managers across the country are revising plans and making sure that they know what to do if disaster heads their way.