NEW ORLEANS — Laine Fry had her own car, understanding friends and a dry, safe evacuation haven as Hurricane Gustav threatened New Orleans in the summer of 2008.
She remembers being comfortable in her exile — disturbingly so.
"I couldn't imagine being the parent of a young child, not having my own car, not knowing where to go," she recalled.
About that time, New Orleans' top emergency official, Col. Jerry Sneed, was overseeing the city's first major evacuation since the chaos of Hurricane Katrina — when tens of thousands were stranded in the sweltering, flooded city for days in 2005. Unlike then, the city and state were prepared with transportation out of the city and shelter space out of harm's way. But there were still unknowns to deal with.
"We weren't quite sure that we'd get the number of volunteers that we'd need," Sneed said of the Gustav evacuation. "And they showed up. We had more than enough volunteers."
So many that it was hard at times to know where to send them and how to organize them.
"There wasn't a playbook," said Robert Fogarty, who was an Americorps volunteer assigned to City Hall at the time.
And so Evacuteer.org was born, an all-volunteer organization that Fogarty founded and now signs up, organizes, and trains volunteers to help with government evacuations of people who don't or can't leave on their own. Twice-weekly training sessions begin in late spring and last into July as the Gulf Coast heads into the peak of hurricane season.
Fry, now the head of operations for the group, said officials try to recruit about 500 volunteers — either individuals or members of other organizations with other missions that are ready to switch gears when an evacuation is triggered.
"Our biggest list is actually faith-based groups, nonprofit organizations that are doing other work," Fogarty said. "Their normal missions are rebuilding or faith-based work."
Evacuteer.org prepares volunteers for a variety of roles, from disseminating information to phone callers about transportation, pickup points and help for the disabled, to helping hand out water and carrying luggage at evacuation pick-up points around the city, Fry said.
An official government call for evacuation would trigger the Evacuteer effort, activating a series of phone calls and deployments to key spots. The system has yet to face its first real test — there hasn't been an evacuation since Gustav. But Sneed said he believes the organized volunteer effort will be invaluable, filling roles he'd otherwise have to fill with firefighters, police or other emergency personnel.
"They just give us that one extra added punch," he said.
It was a perfect organization for volunteer-minded people like Fry, a Massachusetts transplant now steeped in New Orleans' recovery culture. She arrived at her freshman dorm at Tulane University just in time to evacuate for Katrina in August 2005. She returned to volunteer with house-gutting and rebuilding efforts. She evacuated again her senior year for Gustav and grew in the realization that many need help getting out.
"That's what got me engaged in Evacuteer," she said.
A similar desire to help drew Crysty Skevington to the organization. Skevington, from upstate New York, is a 24-year-old graduate student in Tulane University's Disaster Leadership Resilience Academy who learned about Evacuteer.org this year. She hopes to take a leadership role in the group someday. For now, with one training session behind her, she expects she'll be called on to help ease the way out of town for evacuees.
"Help carry bags. Help them if they need help with their kids. Just doing whatever to make sure they're comfortable," she said.
Fogarty estimates that Evacuteer has spent less than $18,000 over its first two years in existence, relying mostly on donations. The city provides office space. And businesses have provided free or reduced-price goods and services, including food for training sessions, meetings, and website and film work.
Evacuteer.org would like to hire a full-time director next year, along with someone who would work during hurricane season. Fogarty said the group foresees a 2012 operating budget of around $160,000. In addition to donations, the organization is hoping for help from the city.
Fogarty and Mayor Mitch Landrieu's spokesman Ryan Berni said Sneed plans to make a request for funding in the 2012 budget, but whether it will be included in the final budget will depend on a review by the Landrieu administration and a vote by the City Council.
"You never know with city budgets, but I think we really do have a good chance," said Sara Hudson, a graduate student and a member of the Evacuteer.org executive leadership committee.
Meanwhile, Evacuteer is moving beyond the organizational and logistical to the aesthetic. The group is working with the nonprofit Arts Council of New Orleans to raise money — separate from its operational fundraising — and choose a design for 17 permanent art installations to serve as iconic landmarks that will distinguish an evacuation pickup point from a bus stop or no-parking zone.
Fogarty, who makes a living with his for-profit photography business, Dear New Orleans, doesn't know what the final products will look like. And he doesn't expect to please everybody. But, he said, Sneed likes the idea, and the Arts Council is on board.
"Even if you think it's ugly or even if you think it's stupid, if one family knows exactly where they need to go, this project's return on investment has been paid for," Fogarty said.