Parish leaders learned lessons from Katrina

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 28, 2010



LAPLACE – St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom said experiences and events that occurred during Hurricane Katrina five years ago have certainly contributed to the current state of affairs in the parish.

“For starters, I can tell you that we were extremely fortunate that it wasn’t any worse,” Robottom said. “If there wasn’t that slight push to the east right before landfall, we might not be here.”

In 2005, Robottom was second in command of the parish as the chief administrative officer under Nickie Monica. She said prior to Katrina, the parish was offered a bit of a “warm up” by virtue of Hurricane Dennis, which made landfall in July.

“It focused our attention on getting ready for the season ahead,” Robottom said. “It was not a serious storm, but it was training we took advantage of.”

Robottom said the early test with Dennis was beneficial because Katrina was a slight surprise in the way the paths changed so rapidly.

“Weather reports were telling us it was going to curve into Florida,” Robottom said. “Then all of a sudden the track shifted and we were right in the crosshairs. It just shows you how unpredictable the storms can be.”

Robottom was one of several administrative employees who rode out the storm at the Percy Hebert Building. She recalled watching the trees flap back and forth and saw the power poles topple down.

“One thing that truly stands out is the sound of the wind whistling around the building,” Robottom said. “It was pretty constant for most of the day and night.”

Robottom said the biggest concern in the immediate aftermath of the storm was the lack of power and the lack of reliable communication locally and statewide.

“Our communication was down, but there was also a breakdown at the state level,” Robottom said. “There were times where we were relaying shortwave radio messages from Baton Rouge to New Orleans or to St. Bernard. We were not down for long though. Since most of the recovery workers were camped out in the parish, our power, sewerage and water were back up three days after the storm.”

In the immediate days and weeks following the storm, Robottom said several decisions were made on the fly as quickly as possible.

“Rules were established and policies were written as we went along,” she said. “It was almost like people were paralyzed and didn’t know where to turn or what to do. No one on any level of government was prepared for the needs and the problems facing the state.”

Robottom said one of the biggest concerns facing St. John was housing. The storm brought an influx of new residents to the parish and everyone needed a place to live, whether it was permanent of temporary.

“Any available real estate in the parish was purchased or leased almost immediately,” Robottom said. “Then we had to establish new rules for trailer placement in residential areas. We were also dealing with FEMA, who was looking to set up trailer parks in the parish. That produced three new parks already zoned for trailers that are still in use today.”

In addition to the people, Robottom said the parish was also the beneficiary of new business that relocated from New Orleans.

“Our economy got a big boost from Natco and Baumer Foods, who both set up shop in Reserve after Katrina. We also established connections with the State Office of Veterans Affairs, who fast tracked construction of our Veterans Home and our VA Hospital. The parish was treating quite a few veterans living in the area and the VA recognized that need.”

Robottom said the storm showed the need for new policies and new operations methods that were implemented parish wide.

“It showed the need for generators at vital facilities in the parish,” she said.

“We established point-to-point shelter agreements so our residents had a place to evacuate. We also recognized the need for direct deposit for parish payroll. It’s one less hassle we have to deal with.”

Robottom said Katrina made the parish more prepared than it ever has been.

The new policies have gone a long way toward shaping how the parish treats storm threats, she added.