Area leaders prepared for hurricane season

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 5, 2010



LAPLACE – Predictions that call for a more active than normal hurricane season have parish officials in the River Region on alert and ready for action.

Forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the 2010 hurricane season, which began June 1, has the potential to produce between 14 and 23 named storms with eight to 14 of those being hurricanes. Emergency officials in St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and St. James parishes say they have taken major steps to ensure their parishes are equipped to handle a storm threat.

St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom said her experience working in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration during hurricanes Gustav and Ike gives the parish an advantage when it comes to communicating parish needs during a potential storm event.

“I forged a lot of great relationships in those two years,” Robottom said. “I know the system, and I know a lot of the people. That familiarity will help us because it gives us a better idea of who to call on to get what we need when we need it.”

Robottom, who was St. John chief administrative officer during the onset of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said she has spent time reviewing the parish’s current hurricane plan with all of her staff to ensure they know their assignments in an emergency declaration. She said roles could also be altered depending on certain aspects of an emergency.

“The parish has come a long way with hurricane preparation since I was here last,” Robottom said. “We have determined where our special needs residents are, and we have an established place to send them should a need arise.”

Robottom said the parish has established point-to-point shelter agreements with officials in Monroe, as well as Oak Grove in West Carroll Parish. She said the parish has pre-registered participating residents through the state’s Phoenix Identification Program, which registers and tracks evacuees during all phases of disaster operations.

“The system is tied into driver’s licenses or state IDs,” said St. John Chief Administrative Officer Marie Brown-Mercadel. “The resident fills out a form that goes to the parish, the state and the shelter site, and that information is linked to an arm band. It also includes information about animals that may be evacuating with residents.”

Robottom said all major parish facilities are linked to emergency generators, and she said the parish’s waters system should not lose power.

She said the parish has made great strides in the past six months clearing out ditches and canals so that drainage runs smoothly.

“We are also preparing to schedule meetings with the residents on flood insurance and emergency preparedness,” Robottom said. “We are beginning to run public service announcements, and we are working with media outlets to provide information and offer tips for the season.”

In St. Charles Parish, a major test for hurricane preparation came last month when the parish conducted a mock full-scale assisted evacuation exercise at the West Bank Bridge Park.

Between 50 and 100 volunteers, including sheriff’s deputies, emergency preparedness personnel, planning and zoning officials and parish residents, participated in a test of the parish’s electronic registration program for evacuating citizens.

“The purpose of an exercise like this is always to learn from doing,” said St. Charles Emergency Preparedness Director Scott Whelchel. “We incorporated lessons learned from evacuations during Katrina and Gustav and corrected mistakes of the past.”

Welchel said St. Charles will also be employing the Phoenix System to register evacuees. He said the mock evacuation offered a good test of the registration system.

In the event of a storm, evacuating residents will board parish buses and be sent to a shelter facility in Avoyelles Parish. Welchel would not disclose the exact location but said it would not be the Paragon Casino in Marksville as it was in the past.

“Residents must sign up with the parish and depart on the buses in order to participate,” Welchel said. “Residents who drive up to the shelter will be assisted in finding a place to stay but will not be allowed inside.”

The parish has also taken steps to protect property and ensure all parish services continue through any recovery effort.

St. Charles spokeswoman Renee Simpson said public works crews have spent weeks clearing miles of canals and digging new ditches to ensure that water drains efficiently.

She said the parish has cleared the Parish Line canal near the Jefferson Parish border, the Airline Borrow Pit Canal, the Prescott Canal in Montz and all canals north of Airline Highway.

She also said the parish installed 36-inch culverts at the Almedia Avenue drainage structure.

Simpson said the parish courthouse would operate with a 1,250-KW generator that will completely run the building during power outages. She said Public Works is also stockpiling sandbags at more than 30 distribution sites across the parish.

In St. James Parish, assistant Emergency Preparedness Director Francis Hymel said the biggest concern is notification to residents of storm related information. He said the parish has instituted a “text message based” system to inform residents once a storm passes through.

“It will give information on supply distribution points and give the status of water and other parish utilities,” Hymel said. “The only problem is that we don’t have much participation yet. At last check, only 200 residents have signed up for the alerts.”

Hymel said the parish has shelter facilities ready for a category 3 storm. If anything higher threatens the area, he said the parish would utilize a point-to-point shelter agreement with officials in Tangipahoa Parish and evacuate residents on parish school buses.

“During Gustav, we used a reverse 911 call down system to notify residents to determine if they need a ride out,” Hymel said. “At this time, that is what we plan to use this year. It worked well.”

Hymel said the drainage system is almost entirely gravity based and uses only one pumping station that has a generator installed. He said the parish has already cleared major canals and ditches that drain into the lakes.