A Civil Defense pamphlet of 1955, “Four Wheels to Survival” recommended automobiles as an effective weapon of personal defense, able to move “many times as far as the strongest of you could go on foot,” and many times faster. The car was promoted as a safety zone, a mobile evacuation center for family and friends, for “you and as many others as can be comfortably seated,” in this era before seat belts were mandatory. During the Cold War, the best defense was to get people out of the radiation fallout zones as quickly as possible. The Civil Defense recommended keeping food and blankets, water, first aid, and tools handy. “The food you’ll need can be based on the 7-day supply suggested by the Federal Civil Defense Administration in its ‘Grandma’s Pantry’ program. Keep these emergency rations in a carton, ready to be put into the car trunk.”
Life magazine explained how a nuclear explosion could give some warning before radioactive fallout reached surrounding areas, in a special issue on “The Drive for Mass Shelters,” in January, 1962. Fallout “is formed when the mighty fireball of a bomb (which may be one to 10 miles in diameter) touches the surface of the earth. Its temperature of many millions of degrees vaporizes everything it touches – buildings, roads, people, and enough rock and earth to burn out a crater a thousand feet or more wide and a hundred feet deep. As the fireball rises, its burden of matter, made radioactive by proximity to the explosion, rises with it and cools. Vaporized particles of matter combined with radioactive products of the fission process now begin to resolidify, first the metals, later the soil particles and other substances. The congealed particles start to fall within 15 to 30 minutes and constitute the deadly rain for which the shelter program is designed.”[i]
Tips from Four Wheels include, “Shelter in an unexpected blast is a bonus you get from your car. Tests under an actual atomic explosion in Nevada proved that modern cars, especially those with turret top construction, give a degree of protection against blast heat and radiation. Before an attack, roll the windows down to equalize pressures and to prevent glass breakage. Crouch or lie down, below the level of the windows. After an attack, windows should be raised to keep out as much dust as possible; it may be contaminated by radio-active fallout. More importantly, the car provides a small movable house. You can get away in it—then live, eat, and sleep in it in almost any climatic conditions, if necessary, until a civil defense emergency is ended.”
If there is one defensive maneuver at which interstates excel, it is moving people from areas in jeopardy to safety. Outside of the science fiction scenarios of the Cold War, most evacuations occur in advance of hurricanes. Traffic jams headed out of Louisiana before Hurricane Georges in 1998 provoked officials to authorize “contraflow” lane reversal for future evacuations. This allows traffic flow in the lanes on the opposite side of the divider, so that all lanes lead out of the threatened area. After a number of tests, traffic engineers established rules to keep vehicles moving: a great deal of public information before the event, through TV and radio news; a limited number of exits, generally 90 miles or so inland; and removing highway patrol officers from blocked exits (because so many people stopped to ask for directions, or complain that they couldn’t get off the interstate).
Hurricane Katrina exposed the inequity of the mandatory call for evacuations in the city of New Orleans – many people had no way to get out. There was no transportation for the public. If a family didn’t have a working vehicle there was no option. They stayed in place.
Following the storm, haunting images of loss and abandonment traveled around the world. There had been sufficient warning time for passenger trains, buses, and vanpools to be organized, but none were in place. In the Superdome there were tens of thousands of refugees, and only about 1000 National Guard troops to keep order. Buses, finally sent in three days after the floods, were sent to the Causeway-Interstate-10 interchange, nearly 10 miles away. Residents waited. “What they soon learned was the Guard’s resistance was a bluff. If someone wanted to leave, they wouldn’t be stopped. But Guardsmen did everything they could to discourage people from wading into the surrounding floodwaters. They were under orders to keep the burgeoning crowd contained to the Dome footprint. But if people wanted to leave and were persistent enough, the Guard would not stand in their way.”[ii] The official death count was ten people: six from natural causes, one from a possible suicide or accident, and three bodies that apparently drowned in the nearby floodwaters and washed up at the Dome. In all, 828 buses arrived, taking a cargo of about 50 evacuees per bus, 41,400 evacuees, across the country, toHouston orAtlanta first, and then on to many other stops.
The New Orleans Convention Center “would morph into a living hell that became the symbol of all that went wrong in Katrina’s aftermath. A crowd eventually pegged at more than 25,000 packed and trashed the place, while waiting for an armada of buses that took the better part of a week to arrive. Day after day, throngs stewed in broiling heat with scant water and food and no plumbing whatsoever. Police rushed into the facility intermittently and just as quickly retreated, mounting at best a spasmodic security effort. The only food and water that would arrive in the first few days came courtesy of looters who raided nearby shops and hotels.” [iii] At least four people died. At the end, helicopters flew survivors from the Convention Center parking lot to transit lots with clear routes out of the city.
The delay of public transport until after the disaster led to death, inhumane conditions, and extended confusion due to the separation and dislocation of family members. Somewhere between 350,000 and 600,000 people were displaced. The dire conditions exposed the privilege of class, and illustrated the unpleasant truth that survival could be bought with adequate resources: a car, friends and family, or a hotel room beyond the danger zone.
In stark contrast to the failures of Katrina was the planning and implementation of Operation Pied Piper. Over the six years of WWII, more than two million children were sent away from their family homes, mostly inLondon, for the Welsh and English countryside. They were returned to their families, some as early as 1940 after the worst of the Blitz was over, although many children came home later in the war.
“We boarded the train, a steamer of course, and off we went. No one was told where we were going, I do not think even my mother knew. It was all very exciting for us children; a train ride was THE way to travel for us working-class kids! After an eternity the train came to a station where we were told to get out. In a big clearing in front of the station were lots of buses, all seemed chaos at the time — my brother went on one bus, I went on another and I do not know where our mother went. My bus drove off and eventually came to a halt outside a building that was obviously a school, where we disembarked and marched into a hall. There seemed to be people moving about all over the place, with adults moving off with children, the hall was looking a lot emptier by the minute. Eventually I was taken off by two people to a house quite close to the school.”[iv]
Evacuations are mobilized with rapid necessity in storms and wartime, but also due to other manmade hazards. Mass evacuations against the danger of radioactive fallout have been used following major nuclear disasters. After Chernobyl in 1986, nothing could be brought away from the farms and cottages within the exclusion zone in a 30-km radius, and that boundary remains in place today. It remains to be seen whether the radiation boundary around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant will allow evacuees to return someday.
Even six years after Katrina, 29% of the population of New Orleans, over 140,000 people, has not yet returned. The network of relatives and friends that form the first line of support for evacuees has long since given way to temporary housing and new situations for living. Evacuation can be permanent.
[i] Life, January 12, 1962, p. 39.
[ii] Jeff Duncan, “Refuge of last resort 1.” The Times-Picayune, August 30, 2006.
[iii] James Varney, “They came seeking refuge, then suffered days in anguish.” The Times-Picayune, August 29, 2006
[iv]Patrick Devine, January 2000, WW2 The People’s War,