Covering all the bases

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, April 8, 2014

By David Vitrano

NORCO – The usually recreationally focused ponds and hiking areas of the Bonnet Carre Spillway were transformed into training grounds Saturday as the Louisiana National Guard and other state and local agencies gathered there to prepare for the state’s next large-scale disaster.

“Hurricane season is only two months away,” said Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Director Kevin Davis. “This exercise helps GOHSEP, the Louisiana National Guard and our other emergency partners focus on response to a tropical system or any other type of natural disaster the state may face.”

The exercises at the spillway were part of a three-pronged operation, with the other components happening at the Naval station in Belle Chasse and in Westlake, La. The Bonnet Carre portion of the activities focused on search-and-rescue operations.

Although the National Guard took the lead in most of the exercises, Davis stressed the importance of coordinating with other agencies during the training so everything can run as smoothly as possible when a disaster strikes. Among the other agencies present Saturday were Louisiana State Police, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the Department of Corrections, the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Department of Children and Family Services, the Department of Health and Hospitals and the Department of Transportation and Development.

“All of these agencies work 365 days a year to be prepared,” said Lt. Col. David Staton of Louisiana State Police. “They all have to work and mesh seamlessly.”

There were three stations set up around the fishing and boat launch area of the spillway just off Airline Highway in Norco, all utilizing the abundant water of the location.

The first station simulated rescue operations of individuals caught in floodwaters, with guardsmen aboard boats practicing maneuvering next to and extracting individuals from the water.

Another station simulated rescuing vehicles from high water scenarios, and the third was a collection point that provided practice at processing and treating those individuals who have been rescued. Although much of what went on Saturday was learned during the chaos following Hurricane Katrina, one somewhat surprising aspect of the collection point, called a Lilly Pad, was the attention paid to rescuing pets along with their owners.

“Pets seem to calm people. It’s kind of like their child,” said Lt. Tommy Allen of the National Guard, adding, “Some of these are actually working pets.”

Allen also noted that many people are reluctant to evacuate without their pets. The Louisiana State Animal Response Team worked with the National Guard and other agencies to provide care for the rescued animals.

One of the more dramatic happenings Saturday featured a helicopter swooping in to deliver rescued individuals.

“We do this constantly training-wise,” said Lt. Col. John Plunkett. “We want the people in Louisiana to realize we do have the assets to get you out of harm’s way.”

The training exercises in other parts of the state focused on other aspects of disaster management, such as medical and transportation. In all, 1,500 guardsmen, 400 civilian officials, 27 agencies, 70 boats, 80 vehicles and seven aircraft were involved in the three training exercises.

Said Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert, “We are the most prepared state when it comes to disasters.”