Staying Linked Helps Reassure New Orleans Evacuees

Electronic connection to family members and pets comforts those fleeing Gustav.


NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 1, 2008— -- For those who fled New Orleans on the days leading up to Hurricane Gustav, technology played a huge role in making sure this storm's evacuation went better than the last.

Pet owners, many of whom rode out Hurricane Katrina in 2005 for fear of leaving their beloved animals behind, were greeted by volunteers stationed at evacuation checkpoints handing out plastic bracelets with barcodes that promised to reunite them with their furry friends after the storm.

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"The animal and its owner are linked together by bracelets with barcodes on them," said Loretta Lambert, who was helping run the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals evacuation site at Union Passenger Station in downtown New Orleans.

"Then when they both arrive at shelters, the bracelets are scanned so they will know where their pets have ended up," said Lambert. The evacuated animals will be put in crates and transported on refrigerated trucks to animal shelters out of harm's way.

Authorities hoped that with this plan, made possible by state legislation passed in 2006 requiring animals be provided for in emergency situations, would encourage more residents to leave during evacuations rather than hang back, unwilling to part with their pets.

Evacuee after evacuee showed up at the station dragging dogs on leashes or clutching cats in pet carriers.

Kissing and petting their pets as they attached bar codes to their collars, owners seemed calmer than expected, said Cecilia Turner, one of the Louisiana SPCA volunteers.

"It's been going really well and steady," she said.

Turner said that while many owners still seem anxious to leave their animals, they relax once they realize they'll remain connected through modern technology.

"The barcodes have made things go a lot smoother than last time," said Turner, who was in New Orleans during Katrina and remembers how many residents simply refused to evacuate because of their pets.

And it's not just animals and their owners that volunteers are helping reunite post-storm – the American Red Cross has also put together a system, known as "Safe and Well," to alert family members of their relatives' whereabouts after they arrive at shelters.

Jim Guidone, an American Red Cross volunteer, said that the new system encourages evacuees to register online when they reach shelters and choose from a series of messages that will let their family members or friends know they're "safe and well" simply by searching for their name on the Red Cross Web site.

According to the Web site, family members curious about relatives' well-being can search a list of names to find out who has listed themselves as "safe and well."

"The results of a successful search will display a loved one's first name, last name, an 'as-of date,' and the 'safe and well' messages selected," reads the site.

With New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin estimating that between 14,000 and 15,000 residents were evacuated by the city, Guidone said that people seemed pleased to know that while they may not know exactly where their bus was headed, they'd be able to let their families know they were safe eventually.

Guidone is confident the system will help a lot of the anxiety evacuees face when they are split up from their families fleeing the storm. A total of 5,542 people have registered on the site since Aug. 31, the first day of evacuations became mandatory in New Orleans.

"This allows everyone to know how their friends and families are doing," Guidone said.

"People feel a lot better when they know they can communicate with each other."

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