This is from the VOR newsletter, “The Voice”, for Fall 2021. VOR, a Voice Of Reason, is a national nonprofit organization that has been speaking out for people with severe Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (I/DD) for almost 40 years. VOR members from Louisiana had quite a story to tell about evacuating residents of community homes from New Orleans to safety in Mississippi.
Ordinary Heroism: Evacuating Crossroads Louisiana During Hurricane Ida
By Susan McIlwain and Mary Kay Cowen, with Hugo Dwyer
How do you keep people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities safe during a hurricane?
Since Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana has mandated every facility housing people with I/DD or the elderly to set up an emergency evacuation plan, and to perform annual mock evacuations to ensure that the residents of the facilities will be kept safe. On August 28, 2021, sixteen years to the day after Katrina, Hurricane Ida made landfall in Port Fourchon, just south of New Orleans.
Hurricane Ida was not the first threat to the Louisiana coast this year. Residents track the path and power of each storm to see which one might pose a major threat to their homes and communities. Ida had strengthened and weakened and been somewhat unpredictable in her course for a few days. In late August, it became clear that Ida was growing larger, wetter, and more dangerous, and that she was heading straight towards Southern Louisiana with New Orleans and surrounding areas receiving voluntary and/or mandatory evacuation orders.
Crossroads Louisiana is a non-profit provider founded in 1982 by Dr. Gerald Murphy to serve persons with I/DD in the Greater New Orleans area. Crossroads is currently run by Executive Director Susan McIlwain. The facility now consists of six 6-bed community homes, all ICF [Intermediate Care Facility] certified. They also oversee a Supervised Independent Living (SIL) program in which another 36 individuals live throughout the community in private homes or apartments.
24 hours before Ida was expected to make landfall, Susan made the call to move all of the seventy-two residents to safer ground at Camp Hopewell, a Christian Retreat located some 350 miles to the north in Oxford, MS. This was to be the second time that Crossroads had evacuated to Camp Hopewell, the first being during Hurricane Gustav in 2008. Crossroads has a written procedural manual for evacuation, and the staff had practiced mock evacuations annually, fine tuning and improving the procedures every time. Still, planning and trial runs are one thing. When a crisis hits, it’s all about execution.
Staff were contacted and asked if they could join in the evacuation and bring their families, or if they and their families had made other plans. She called on families of the residents, to see if they could help out. Among those families were Mary Kay and Mark Cowen. Mary Kay’s brother Tommy is a resident of one of the homes, and her husband Mark had catered many of their meals and was well known to the Crossroads family. Mary Kay and Mark packed up and left early Friday morning, to get to Camp Hopewell to obtain food and set up for the others. Meanwhile, Susan and the staff packed up sheets, towels, adult briefs, games, and anything else that might be needed, They hired a bus, loaded up Crossroads’ 13 mini-buses, and set out with staff and families in their own cars late at night, so that the residents would all have eaten, taken their medications, and be ready to sleep for most of the six- to seven-hour journey to Oxford.
When the caravan arrived the next morning, Mark and Mary Kay had set up to feed the weary travelers. Between the seventy residents, the staff and their families, and the families of the residents who came to help out, the group numbered around 140 people. Due to the Covid pandemic, Camp Hopewell had not been running most of its usual summer programs and retreats, so they were able to accommodate everyone. Families that owned pets had brought their dogs and cats and even a pet lizard (a bearded dragon, to be exact). Beds were assigned to residents and their families, though some of the families chose to relocate to motels nearby.
The evacuation plan had been written with specific tasks and responsibilities assigned to directors, program managers, and supervisors, who then worked with residential staff and volunteers to make sure that all of the residents’ needs were being met. It didn’t take long for the group to develop a new daily routine, some of it mirroring the daily activities from back home, some of it adjusted to the camp environment, and some of it adapted to the fact that they were working with a smaller staff augmented by volunteers.
Every day meant buying more food and necessities at a nearby Sam’s, cooking, cleaning, and of course, keeping the Crossroads residents active and entertained. Remarkably, there were very few incidents during these two weeks, either behavioral or medical, and all were of a minor nature. While the staff and families put in extra effort to make sure everything was running smoothly, the residents generally experienced the evacuation like two weeks at camp. And that’s exactly the way it was supposed to be.
“It was non-stop,” Susan remarked. “And until we were coming home, I didn’t realize how long we had been there. You do this, and do this and do this, and completely lose track of time. You don’t even think about it. You just do what you gotta do.”
Mary Kay describes watching all of this unfold, and getting to see the daily process of Crossroads’ work, “It never ceases to amaze me, what they do. You think you know about what’s happening on the surface, going on up front. But until you really experience what’s going on in the background, see it from the inside, you really don’t understand the challenges it takes to do what Crossroads and people like Crossroads do every day. I thought I had a clue, but this really opened my eyes.”
Once the storm had passed, a team of four traveled back to New Orleans to evaluate damage. They spent the day evaluating the situation, confirming that homes were safe, repairs were arranged, refrigerators and freezers were or would be secured or cleaned out. Once staff that remained in New Orleans had confirmed all of the client homes had electricity and usable water to Susan, she signaled that the group return with the least amount of disruption to care. At that point, groceries and other supplies (including gas) were obtained, everyone packed up their things, got back onto the buses and into their cars, and lined up for the caravan back to New Orleans.
The Crossroads group stayed at Camp Hopewell for thirteen days before being able to move back home. They’ve been back about two days at the time of this writing, and things are nowhere near back to normal. One home remains closed due to a bureaucratic snafu at one of the state agencies. There are still long lines for food and supplies. Folks are settling back in, but it will be a while before everything in New Orleans returns to normal.
The costs of this evacuation were extensive. Food for the group was estimated to have cost anywhere from $1,000 to over $1,200 per day. The motel rooms ran about $5,000 to $6,000. The bus cost about $2,500, plus the cost of gas for all of the vehicles. The stay at the campground itself cost about $30,000. Susan estimates the total for the evacuation will come in at around $60,000 or higher. Crossroads won’t receive any additional state or federal assistance for this evacuation, either. It’s all coming out of their own pocket.
Of course, there’s that other thing. There’s that thing that can’t be measured, that thing that can’t be written into an evacuation plan or assigned as a task. It’s that special thing that you feel, that you can see in the day-to-day workings of a group of ordinary people rising to meet the challenges of extraordinary circumstances. The success of this evacuation, the physical and emotional health of the Crossroads clients, and staff, and all of their families, the ability for everyone to just get it all done for two weeks during a crisis, it all boils down to the love and devotion of those involved. That’s what it’s all about.
Mary Kay Cowen has long been a member of the VOR Board of Directors.
Susan McIlwain, Executive Director of Crossroads Louisiana, has also served as a member of the Board and has participated in several of our Annual Conferences in Washington, D.C.
For more information about Crossroads Louisiana, or to make a contribution to help offset the costs of the evacuation, please go to https://crossroadslouisiana.org/ .