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When should you evacuate during hurricane season? A Louisiana guide with tips, maps, more

A Hurricane Evacuation Route sign on N. Broad St. in New Orleans.
Carly Berlin
A Hurricane Evacuation Route sign on N. Broad St. in New Orleans.

When we asked for your questions about preparing for hurricane season back in June, a common theme emerged. You wanted to know: when a hurricane comes our way, how do you decide when to stay and when to evacuate?

The short answer: it’s complicated, and getting more so. The general rule of thumb is to leave when a major hurricane – Category 3 or higher – approaches the coast. But rapidly intensifying hurricanes, like last year’s Ida, can leave little time to get out beforehand, throwing a wrench in the conventional wisdom and past plans.

Any family’s decision will come down to what’s best for them – and what they can afford, as evacuating can be expensive, especially with gas prices at a high. We can’t make the call for you, but we can lay out the information you need to consider when making your plans.

Keep track of real-time updates

The National Hurricane Center is the go-to resource for tracking all things hurricane related, from the anticipated arrival times of rain and wind to the dreaded cone of uncertainty.

Parish emergency management offices will keep you posted on local impacts, watches and warnings, and evacuation orders. Here’s a list of contact information by parish. In New Orleans, sign up for emergency alerts by texting NOLAREADY to 77295.

City officials often give major updates through press conferences that are streamed on social media. Local news sources (hey, that’s us!) will keep you updated on all the latest information.

Voluntary vs. mandatory evacuation orders

A voluntary evacuation order means that forecasted conditions may become dangerous. Officials will generally encourage you to consider relocating to a safer location.

A mandatory evacuation means that everyone must leave: the forecasted conditions will endanger lives and threaten the destruction of property. You won’t be forced to evacuate, but public services could be out of commission for an extended period of time, and first responders won’t be able to reach you when conditions are severe.

Sometimes, officials will call different types of evacuation orders for different geographic areas. For example, Orleans Parish often issues mandatory evacuations only for areas outside of levee protection.

Factoring in prior damage

Many people across southeast Louisiana are still recovering from Ida, Zeta, Laura and Delta, living in homes with damaged roofs or in temporary trailers that are particularly susceptible to risk from high winds.

“The state of our communities after the last couple of years leaves them highly vulnerable,” said Casey Tingle, director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Even if a family wouldn’t have evacuated in the past, he said, “it may be that they certainly need to reconsider that this year.”

Know your routes out

If you’re evacuating, emergency officials urge you to leave as early as you can to avoid storm impacts on the road and to get ahead of gridlocked traffic. Keep an eye on the storm’s path as you decide where you’ll go.

Officials emphasize heading north, away from the coast. Last year, ahead of Ida, I-10 was backed up for hours heading east and west, said Rodney Mallett, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. But routes north — along I-55 and I-59 — were “wide open.”

Here’s a breakdown of evacuation routes out of southeast Louisiana.

Toward Baton Rouge and Texas: From New Orleans, take I-10 West. From the North Shore, take I-12 or U.S. 190 (though if contraflow is in effect, starting at Covington, I-12 will be diverted to I-55 North at Hammond – more on that below).

Heading in this direction, you’ll be able to pick up I-49 North in Lafayette to head toward Shreveport.

Stephan Bisaha
Gulf States Newsroom

Toward Hammond, in the direction of Jackson, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee: From New Orleans, take I-10 to I-55 North in LaPlace, or take the Causeway to either U.S. 190 or I-12 West — both can get you to Hammond. From there, continue north toward Brookhaven, Mississippi.

Stephan Bisaha
Gulf States Newsroom

Toward Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the direction of Meridian, Mississippi and Birmingham, Alabama: From New Orleans, take 1-10 East toward Slidell. Then, take I-59 North toward Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Stephan Bisaha
Gulf States Newsroom

Plug in your zip code to this DOTD application, and it will give you evacuation route options. You can find more information about routes and how contraflow impacts them here. Before you hit the road, check here for road closures.

Don’t wait for contraflow, officials say

On rare occasions, the state will coordinate contraflow for an evacuation, which means certain stretches of highways out of the New Orleans metro area will run in one direction. (We’ve noted those stretches on the maps above).

Contraflow was last used for Hurricane Gustav in 2008. And though many metro New Orleans residents may consider it to go hand in hand with evacuations, state emergency officials said that’s not the case.

“We don’t really look at [contraflow] as one of our critical factors to a successful evacuation,” said Tingle, from GOHSEP.

It’s a tool that brings with it a large number of challenges, Tingle said. It requires a high level of coordination between state agencies and local officials — along with the state of Mississippi — to set up roadblocks and put up signage indicating alternate routes.

And the disruption to the normal flow of traffic can make it harder for resources needed after a storm to make it here quickly, like the out-of-state powerline repair trucks familiar to many south Louisianans after the devastating hurricanes of 2020 and 2021.

It also requires several days of lead time that rapidly-intensifying hurricanes do not afford.

That’s partly because the state aims to evacuate the coast in phases. If everyone from metro New Orleans were to get on the highway at the same time, they would obstruct people evacuating from the south and west, and risk getting trapped on the road as severe weather begins to hit.

Last year, when Hurricane Ida barreled toward southeast Louisiana, it was already too late to implement contraflow safely, said Collin Arnold, director of the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

“We don’t want to block people and put people on the road in a situation where we’re actually making them less safe,” Arnold said.

There are no changes to the contraflow plans this hurricane season, though WWL-TV reported that a new task force has convened to consider updates to contraflow for rapidly intensifying hurricanes.

How to leave if you don’t have a car

If a mandatory evacuation is called in New Orleans, the city will offer free transportation assistance out of harm's way.

A central evacuation hub will be set up at the Smoothie King Center. You can get there by going to a designated evacuspot around town or by taking any RTA bus that goes through Duncan Plaza (an extra stop will be added and fares will be waived). You can also bike there, walk or get dropped off; there won’t be designated parking onsite.

If you have medical needs, you may be eligible to get picked up from your home. Create a Smart911 profile and fill out the medical section.

If you might need to use city assisted evacuation, text EVACNOLA to 77295 and you’ll receive updates if New Orleans issues a mandatory evacuation.

An "Evacuspot," or pick up point for City-Assisted Evacuation, outside the Lyons Recreation Center on June 22, 2022.
Carly Berlin
An "Evacuspot," or pick up point for City-Assisted Evacuation, outside the Lyons Recreation Center on June 22, 2022.

Even if the city doesn’t have time to fully evacuate ahead of a storm – as was the case for Hurricane Ida – officials may stand up a limited pre-storm evacuation effort for medically vulnerable and elderly people, or evacuate residents after a storm hits.

For more on this year’s changes to the plans, read our report from June.

Other resources to keep in mind

Across New Orleans, city government and community leaders are setting up resource centers that can function during widespread power outages. For more details — and a handy map — check out our story.

It’s also a good time to gather documents you’ll need in case you have to file a FEMA claim after a storm. Here’s a list of documents to make sure you have ready.

Carly Berlin is the New Orleans Reporter for WWNO and WRKF. She focuses on housing, transportation, and city government. Previously, she was the Gulf Coast Correspondent for Southerly, where her work focused on disaster recovery across south Louisiana during two record-breaking hurricane seasons. Much of that reporting centered on the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in Lake Charles, and was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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