More help needed to flee hurricanes

NEW ORLEANS, LA Because of the recession, the nation's coastal communities are preparing to help more people evacuate if a hurricane approaches, especially residents who cannot afford to escape on their own.

"The way the economy is, nobody is able to just pick up and leave," said Bryant St. Amant, a 39-year-old oysterman in Bayou La Batre on the Alabama coast. "You've got to put gas in the car and stock up on supplies."

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, St. Amant's family was temporarily homeless and endured life in a government-issued trailer. The father of four isn't sure where they would go if another storm threatened, but he has no interest in reliving his Katrina ordeal.

In Louisiana, officials are prepared to provide transportation to several thousand more people than the roughly 37,000 who needed government help evacuating ahead of Hurricane Gustav last year.

They have also vowed to improve conditions at shelters, with more showers and roomier sleeping arrangements. Last year, many evacuees were taken to shelters with few showers or without adequate medical care, and they could not return home for several days.

Hurricane season started June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

Federal forecasters have predicted a near-normal season, with nine to 14 named tropical storms. The season is expected to include four to seven hurricanes, one to three of them major -- Category 3 or higher with winds of more than 111 mph.

Katrina was a Category 3 hurricane when it struck south of New Orleans, and so was Hurricane Rita, which tore through east Texas and western Louisiana on Sept. 24, 2005, with 120 mph winds.

There were five major hurricanes last year.

Nziki Wiltz of New Orleans, a single mother who last year drove her four children to an Atlanta motel to escape Gustav, is out of work and low on savings. She cannot afford another expensive road trip.

So if New Orleans is evacuated, she is resigned to boarding a government-contracted bus to get to safety.

"That's hard for me to do, because I'm used to being independent," said Wiltz, who recently lost her job as an elementary school teacher.

Cynthia Parker, 53, also of New Orleans, has been unemployed since she lost her job as a substitute teacher last August. But her experience during Gustav left her determined to evacuate on her own if a storm approaches this summer, regardless of the cost.

Before Gustav made landfall, a government bus took her to a shelter at an old warehouse in Shreveport, La., that had filthy portable toilets and no indoor showers.

"It was miserable," she said. "We stayed there for seven days. It was a mess."

Residents of Savannah, Ga., have not had to evacuate since Hurricane Floyd threatened a decade ago, but the city and surrounding Chatham County now have enough buses on standby to transport 2,000 more people than was possible last year. The Red Cross is prepared to open more shelters.

"Some folks can't afford to go stay in a motel or afford the gas," said Clayton Scott, director of the Chatham County Emergency Management Agency. "And we're anticipating more of that because of the economic conditions."

In Mississippi, state officials have built two new storm shelters on the coast and plan to break ground on 10 others this summer. The extra space will give thousands of residents an alternative to evacuating by car. South Carolina has added nine sites for evacuation shelters this year, in part due to the economy.

In Florida, a grant program offered to cut in half the cost of installing hurricane shutters for some homeowners.

About 8,000 homes were inspected for the program, but only 511 households agreed to participate. Some low-income residents received the shutters for free with the grant, but others decided against paying even half the bill.

"People weren't willing to pony up the $2,500," said Charlie Craig, emergency management director for Volusia County, on central Florida's east coast.

In Miami, officials compiled tips on preparing for a hurricane on a tight budget. An online guide includes ideas such as shopping with 2-for-1 coupons and putting one item in the pantry and the second in a disaster kit.

In Miami-Dade County, emergency management spokesman Jaime Hernandez isn't convinced the sour economy will stop residents from fleeing a bad storm. He said the county is prepared to shelter about 80,000 residents if a major storm threatens, although only three shelters were needed to house about 200 people when Tropical Storm Fay hit last year.

"I think if someone wants to evacuate, regardless of their economic situation, they're going to evacuate," he said.

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