The Atlantic hurricane season is now underway, and many cities in hurricane-prone areas are doing what they can to prepare residents for actions they may need to take to stay safe amid a season that AccuWeather forecasters say is shaping up to be another active one.
One city that is ramping up preparations and is also one of the most vulnerable in the United States due to its location along the Gulf coast, an active corridor for hurricanes as was put on display in 2020, and also the fact that it sits right at sea level is New Orleans.
Louisiana was struck by six tropical cyclones, including three hurricanes, in a 2020 hurricane season that decimated record after record last year. The state suffered more direct hits than any other season on record, beating out 2002 with five strikes from Cristobal, Marco, Laura, Delta and Zeta. Hurricane Sally also nearly brushed the area but headed just east and slammed Alabama. And the hyperactive 2020 season continues to set new records. Post analysis from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) released just this week determined that the final storm of the season to slam the area was actually a major hurricane.
On Oct. 28, 2020, Hurricane Zeta roared ashore in southeastern Louisiana with the eye of the storm eventually tracking directly over New Orleans. It was initially rated a Category 2 storm with winds of 110 mph, but the NHC analysis found it was a Category 3 hurricane, packing wind of 115 mph, when it made landfall.
The New Orleans Police Department Chief Shaun Ferguson joined city officials for the City Assisted Evacuation press conference on April 30, 2021. He urged residents to have an evacuation plan in place and to sign up for the Residents are encouraged to sign up for the NOLA Ready alert system by texting NOLAREADY to 77295. (Twitter / NOPDNews)
Even nearly 16 years later, Hurricane Katrina, a storm that destroyed a large part of New Orleans and became one of the worst weather disasters in U.S. history, still weighs heavy on the minds of residents in the city. The storm claimed about 1,200 lives and highlighted how many people are unable to evacuate the city without assistance.
Now, the city of New Orleans runs NOLA Ready, featuring safety and preparedness tips, procedures and other information for a number of situations, along with safety and evacuation drills so that all residents can be ready well in advance of the next major storm or hurricane.
One particular focus of health and public safety officials in preparing for the hurricane season is a city-assisted evacuation program. Last week, city officials put plans to the test in a small-scale exercise of the program.
There are an estimated 35,000 people who will need assistance getting out of the city if a mandatory evacuation is ordered.
People in New Orleans participate in a hurricane evacuation drill. (NOLA Ready)
"There are thousands of individuals in our city who are going to have trouble getting out in case of a mandatory evacuation," Dr. Jennifer Avegno of the New Orleans Health Department told AccuWeather National Reporter Bill Wadell.
"For our homebound individuals, for our individuals on dialysis, those in wheelchairs, those with chronic medical needs, those who are having acute medical emergencies, it's going to be even more difficult to evacuate safely," she explained.
The exercise helps workers in the city assisted evacuation program prepare for the various different needs and challenges that can arise in helping those with disabilities in the event of an evacuation.
Carl Arredondo, an orientation and mobility specialist and former chief meteorologist at WWL in New Orleans, a position he held for 20 years before retiring in 2019, helped volunteers at the drill by providing feedback on how to best communicate for those with disabilities.
Arredondo was the only local meteorologist on TV during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Years later, he began to lose his vision and was diagnosed with retinal pigmentosa. Arredondo decided to make the difficult decision to step down as chief meteorologist in 2019 just three years after his diagnosis, and he is now helping other people learn how to live and travel safely with impaired vision.
It was after live coverage of a severe weather event in 2018, and he had difficulty reading an alert on the screen that he realized he would not be able to give 100% to his role as a broadcast meteorologist.
"Take two toilet paper tubes, put them to your eyes and walk around like that for a while. That's kind of what retinitis pigmentosa is like, you only have a central vision," Arredondo told Wadell.
Arredondo now serves as a certified orientation and mobility specialist and helps to train people with low vision and blindness how to get around using a white stick.
"There aren't many of us that get to teach travel and are also visually impaired. I've now found a second passion. Weather was my first passion, but it made it easier to step down from that knowing I was stepping into a new passion," Arredondo said, as he reflected on his current role and also his ability to help in the New Orleans evacuation exercise.
"There's a lot more help for the disabled if somebody is living alone or can't travel by themselves. People don't realize it but a lot of the directions [are] go to the line over there. Well, we can't see. We don't know where over there is," Arredondo said, adding that he was able to provide feedback during the exercise, like using clock-face directions, that will help others with visual impairment like himself. "I told one of the volunteers, you know, tell me that we're heading towards my one o'clock."
Richie Fraychineaud, a resident of New Orleans, also helped at the drill providing feedback and assisting those who are deaf or have hearing loss.
Richie Fraychineaud (left) and Jennifer Guerrier (right) explain their experiences to AccuWeather National Reporter Bill Wadell. (AccuWeather / Bill Wadell)
"How do we communicate as deaf people when our phone dies and we can't do text. We can't send out messages," Fraychineaud told Wadell. "These situations now with planning is much better, and this training is very, very helpful."
Fraychineaud and American Sign Language interpreter Jennifer Guerrier both say earlier warnings and clear messages are crucial.
"In helping with the evacuation drill with NOLA ready, it was really about helping the staff and assistants know how to treat and talk to somebody with a visual impairment," Arredondo added.
Fraychineaud weighed in with a similar sentiment and emphasized just how important it is to communicate with everyone effectively. "No one gets left out," he said, adding, "Make sure you're communicating with everyone."
City officials are confident in the plans and preparation that have been put into place. "If we know who you are and where you are and what your needs are, we can help you get out safely," Avegno said.
Reporting by Bill Wadell.
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