Tis the season to be prepared

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 10, 2002


Officials in the River Parishes will run through the annual hurricane simulation this month, as they anticipate a very stormy summer. The latest long range forecasts for the 2002 Atlantic hurricane season are for an above average number of storms; seven will attain “hurricane” status, and three of those will fall into the Category Three, Four or Five range. Where wind gusts exceed 111 miles per hour and storm surges are 9-12 feet above normal.

Tab Troxler, the director of Emergency Operations for St. Charles Parish, was recently at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando, Fla. (Next year’s will be in New Orleans.) Troxler and other experts discussed how fortunate Louisiana has been with volatile storm seasons in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico and minimal damage to the area.

“It really doesn’t matter how many there are, but how many hit land,” said Troxler.

Landfall is the term used to indicate the moment the eye of a hurricane hits land. It has been two-and-a-half years since a hurricane last made landfall in Louisiana, 19 storms total.

“You might say we could set a record,” said Paul Oncale, director of Civil Defense for St. John the Baptist Parish. Along with Deputy Director Kathryn Gilmore, Oncale coordinates a staff of 30 volunteers and a command center with 16 phones designated for officials from civic entities like the school system and public works.

The phones are lined up on conference tables arranged in a horseshoe to facilitate dialogue among the parties, surrounded by wall-sized aerial maps of the River Parishes and television monitors positioned at strategic vantage points on wall racks. With Interstate 10 intersecting with Interstate 55 in LaPlace, as well as Airline Highway running through the center of town, St. John Parish plays a critical role in evacuation procedures for the Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Task Force.

“This parish alone is not a consideration,” Gilmore explained. “During an evacuation, 75 percent of the traffic from New Orleans comes down I-10.”

The region’s task force consists of the 13 parishes in southeast Louisiana, the Louisiana State Police, the Louisiana National Guard, and the Louisiana State Department of Transportation and Development.

There is a rigid coordination of responsibilities between state and parish entities, but cooperation is key. In St. John Parish, for example, sheriff’s office spokesman Capt. Mike Tregre said their deputies must be ready to assist the State Police with traffic flow along Airline Highway, but also have their own preparatory procedures.

“All officers are called to active duty first thing,” said Tregre. “Then we have a checklist of items: putting power generators in place, making sure all the vehicles have full gas tanks, and the officers are carrying adequate supplies with them.”

Preparation checklists should be the priority for all residents, every official said. A storm ranked Category Three or higher is immediate cause for evacuation. The evacuation notice derives from a forecast that allows 72 hours notice, not nearly enough time to get ready without any kind of plan.

“The main thing (residents) have to do is pre-plan, given the different scenarios,” said Gerald Falgoust, director of Emergency Operations for St. James Parish. Like all the parishes, Falgoust’s department publishes guides with tips for evacuation routes that depend on whatever direction a storm may be turning, and a checklist of things to remember to do prior to evacuating.

“People continue to neglect their families in the planning process. I’ve seen horrible situations where people are dropping off Grandma and Grandpa at the hospital the day of the storm,” said Troxler. “Also pets. Look for hotels that take pets. This has to be done today, not when the hurricane is on its way.”

The American Red Cross maintains no shelters in the River Parishes, and none of the buildings located here are capable of withstanding conditions from a Category Three storm.

“The storm surge risk is too great for any shelter below Interstate 12,” explained Bill Salmeron, the coordinator for the Disaster Preparedness and Planning for the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Salmeron said they have shelters designated for evacuees in the northern parishes based on the direction of the hurricane. Shelters are manned by a teams of 22 volunteers who work 12-hour shifts so the shelter can function 24-hours a day.

“(Evacuees) should pack enough clothes, food and water for three days. You may not get back to your home for that long, or longer,” said Salmeron.

The parishes have buildings that may be designated as shelters for Category One storms, but anything above that people would most likely be better off leaving the parish, officials said.

“It’s hard for people to comprehend that a home will have 18 feet of water from a storm surge, but that’s happened a thousand times,” said Troxler.

Storm surge is the deadliest phenomenon of the hurricane. Great domes of water, often 50 miles wide, hit the coastline near the area where the eye makes landfall. Louisiana’s shallow coastline without waves make the intensity of the storm surge much greater than other parts of the United States.

“If Florida gets a storm with an 8-foot surge, we’ll get a 16-foot surge,” said Troxler.

Nine out of 10 fatalities in a hurricane are caused by drowning, brought on by a storm surge. A statistic Gilmore attributed to a lack of pre-planning by both citizens and parish governments.

“People watch what their neighbors do. If they see their neighbors packing up. They might think, ‘hey, I should do the same. If they’re not, they may stay,” she said.

Residents should pay attention to the susceptibility of their particular area to flooding. Falgoust said South Vacherie, for example, was a critical flooding area until the backwater project, consisting of a partial levee and pump capabilities, was completed last year.

Troxler said St. Charles Parish is probably the most vulnerable, as far as location, of all the River Parishes, even for smaller storms that move more quickly.

“The hazard has not changed. There’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to be threatened more often,” said Troxler. “At the conference, there was a projection slide showing a group of men on a highway looking at a sign for homeland security. All the while a Mack truck is coming up behind them. The point was that of all the emergencies that may happen, one thing that will happen is hurricanes.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of hurricane-related articles designed to inform area residents of the dangers associated with violent weather. The articles will feature photographs and quotes from local citizens who vividly recall the devastating damage which can result from a Category Three-plus hurricane.