The Evacuation of Older People: The Case of Hurricane Katrina
Published on: Mar 15, 2007

A paper presented at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society and Institute of British Geographers, London, 31 August 2006.

In this paper, I focus on the process of evacuation and how, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, this casts light on the position of older people in contemporary western society.

All the evidence I draw on I have gleaned from the Internet. I have not interviewed anyone by phone or email. Most of the material I have collected are newspaper and media reports, but increasingly there is a body of official documentation reviewing what went wrong and how similar disasters might be avoided. In order to keep this unfunded study manageable I have limited it to text and not included visual images of the disaster.

I have organised the paper around four aims:

  • to briefly summarise the impact of Katrina on New Orleans
  • to consider the significance of age in how people respond to mass evacuations
  • to describe how the evacuation of older people from New Orleans was managed
  • to reflect on the wider significance of the disaster.

The impact of Katrina

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans early in the morning of Monday 29th August 2005. The population of the city was around half a million and most of those affected were residents of the city, living in their own homes. Some however were in institutions at the time: the prison, hospitals and nursing homes.

According to statistics from the 2000 US census, the population of New Orleans was 485,000, of whom 7,400 were aged 85 or more. A total of 17,600 were living in non-households, of whom 2,500 were older people resident in nursing homes. There were about 1,800 hospital beds. These statistics imply that the majority, probably the large majority, of the 7,400 people aged 85 or more were living in ordinary, non-institutional, households.

Table 1 summarises the sequence of key events marking the arrival of Katrina and the evacuation of the city. The Hurricane was formed on Tuesday, the 23rd, and two days later it arrived in Florida. Prior to its arrival, people in Louisiana were faced with two scenarios: leaving or staying put. Some had no means of escaping: 38,000 households had no car. Others could have escaped but chose not to, but most fled over the course of the weekend.

At 5.00 pm on Saturday, the 27th, the Mayor of New Orleans called for a voluntary evacuation of the city and this was made mandatory the following morning at 9.30 am. At midday, recognising that many were unable to leave, he designated the Superdome and a number of other locations as 'refuges of last resort'.

It has been estimated that by the time Katrina arrived on Monday morning, 85% of the population of New Orleans had escaped, primarily in vehicles. Of the remaining 70,000, 25,000 took refuge in the Superdome. Later that day the first levee was breached and this led to large parts of the city centre being flooded. On Tuesday, following global exposure on television, the evacuation of the Superdome and other refuges was ordered, and this was completed five days later, the following Sunday.

The television images from the Superdome and elsewhere were predominantly of hungry, distressed and angry African-Americans and the connection with race and poverty was made explicit in many of the accompanying commentaries. The BBC for example, ran a story on 4th of September which read:

Images from the stricken city of New Orleans show that many of those suffering in its streets and shelters are black and poor. The plight of those stranded amid the filth and the dead has highlighted a side of the city most tourists do not see - one in which two-thirds of its residents are black and more than a quarter live in poverty. 

These images have set the agenda for subsequent debates, both in the media and in the social sciences. There has been much critical comment about the failure of the federal government, and in particular FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to respond quickly and effectively. The critique has focused upon the impact of the hurricane on the city as a whole, and the plight of those in the Superdome in particular. In this way the population that suffered has been portrayed as poor and black.

The classic measure of disasters is mortality. How many people died as a result of Katrina, and who were they?

At the present time (August 2006), it has been estimated that Katrina was responsible for the deaths of 1,836 people. There is an interesting debate underway on marginal cases – people who were killed in road accidents while escaping, or who subsequently have committed suicide, for example. Also 141 people are still registered as missing. Authoritative statistics are unavailable.

A provisional analysis undertaken for Knight Ridder newspapers late last year concluded that, if anything, death rates were higher among whites than among African-Americans, and that there were few significant differences in death rates between poor and wealthy neighbourhoods. These figures questioned the popular image of Katrina's victims as poor and black.

What the analysis also reported was that nearly half the deaths were of people aged 75 or more. Table 2 is based on details of 729 victims whose bodies were taken to one of the two main morgues (I accessed this list on 21 December). It shows that 50% were in their 70s or 80s. The oldest victim was a woman aged 102. Only 39 people under 40 years of age died, less than 6% of all victims listed.

So the disaster primarily affected older people. As John Mutter, of Columbia University, has commented: "When it comes to deaths, this was an age-selective disaster far more than it was race-selective". Insofar as mortality is an appropriate indicator of disaster, then Katrina was unprecedented because of a failure to protect or evacuate older people effectively.

The relevance of age

How relevant then is age in how people respond to the prospect of disaster and, in particular, to calls to evacuate? There are three distinct ways in which age may be seen as relevant.
  1. The first is that age is statistically associated with illness and mobility problems.

    Note that this is not referring solely to people over a certain age. Throughout adulthood, older people are statistically more likely than younger people to have difficulty in moving quickly. They are more likely to be ill or incapacitated.

    In addition, older people may be less inclined than younger people to escape, because they perceive the risks involved in undertaking long and stressful journeys to be greater. In the case of Katrina, heat, dehydration and the need for medication were all mentioned as disincentives for older people. Older people were less willing than younger people to risk getting caught up in the heat and frustrations of gridlock.

    Thus, both objectively and subjectively, age counts in this statistical sense, and this makes evacuation more problematic for all concerned.

  2. Secondly, age is also relevant because of experience and biography.

    People who have lived in a particular area a long time are familiar with the annual cycle of weather. People have to learn to cope. Those who can cope take each year as it comes. People who can't cope, tend to leave. So it would follow that the inclination of long-time residents of New Orleans would be to stay put. As one put it, "I grew up with hurricanes. I'm used to them".

    Conversely, it is plausible that older people are more attached to their homes and neighbourhoods and less able than younger people to transport their valued possessions to safe places. They may feel more threatened with the loss of their home and by the possibility of being robbed. Who will look after their pets? One newspaper report focused on two 83-year-old twin sisters who insisted on remaining in New Orleans to care for their pets: a dog, cat and bird. Older people may be more inclined than younger people to think of evacuation as abandoning their friends, their home and indeed their city. Arguably the prospect is much more disruptive biographically.

  3. Thirdly there are policies and attitudes to age and, in particular, 'the elderly' and their 'special needs'.  

    In many areas of life, ageism has the effect of setting 'the elderly' apart, stereotyping them by assuming that they require specialised attention to meet their 'special needs'. Although on occasions they may benefit from being earmarked in this way, there may be the reverse effect: being denied the benefits of more ordinary services and opportunities, and separating them from younger people. According to the Louisiana Emergency Operations Plan, for example, 'specialized shelters should be established for people with special medical needs'. But, when residents enquired on the Saturday before Katrina where these shelters were, they discovered that there were two in the state, both over 200 miles from New Orleans.

At times of desperation, 'the elderly' can suddenly be seen as unmanageable 'burdens' for the authorities. Consider the following dramatic claim published in the New York Times:
Yet the breadth of the collapse of one of society's most basic covenants – to care for the helpless – suggests that the elderly and critically ill plummeted to the bottom of priority lists as calamity engulfed New Orleans.
Setting aside the rhetoric, the claim here is that 'society' had failed as a result of bureaucratic practices relating to 'the elderly' and their ’needs’.