Safe Room reaches completion

Published 12:05 am Saturday, January 11, 2020

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LAPLACE — As rushing floodwater submerged more than 7,000 homes and panic ensued at the height of Hurricane Isaac, St. John the Baptist Parish’s emergency officials worked around the clock for days on end, without a bed to rest in.

911 operators took turns napping on the floor of the Assessor’s Office, while state officials slept in their vehicles. It was a learning experience that revealed a need for a facility that could provide a safe place to sleep and shower during emergency events.

This week, Parish officials joined state and federal representatives for a ribbon cutting at the newly constructed Safe Room. Located adjacent to the Emergency Operations Center at 1801 W. Airline Highway in LaPlace, the facility is built to provide protection against gale force winds, wind-borne debris, flooding and loss of power.

The completed 4,000 square foot facility contains separate sleeping quarters, restrooms and showers for men and women. Once stocked with bunk beds, the Safe Room will sleep more than 100 critical staff members and emergency responders, according to Parish President Natalie Robottom.

The exterior of the building is funded by $1,107,000 in HMGP funds, which includes a 25 percent match from various parish funding sources. The match and interior of the building are funded through the 2015 bond issue and various parish budgets including 911 communications and the Office of Fire Services.

The Parish Grants Department and CAO, Sizeler Architects, GOHSEP, FEMA and Royal Engineers and Consultants LLC worked extensively over the last several years to obtain funding for the design and construction of this project.

Onshore Construction Company LLC oversaw construction of the Safe Room. Cain Dufrene, chief of operations of the Office of Fire Services, closely monitored the project.

Robottom recounted staff members staying in trailers or being sent to fire stations during previous severe weather events.

Natalie Robottom and GOHSEP representative Casey Tingle discuss the new Safe Room.

“We survived it, but we know better now. In order to operate fully and at your best, you need that time away from what’s happening at the EOC to get a nice rest,” Robottom said. “Historically, we thought (Isaac) would be a two- or three-day event. It doesn’t always happen like that. We were here for weeks. When you need it, it’s meaningful that this facility is here, and it’s safe.”

Sheriff Mike Tregre saw a need for a safe room long before Hurricane Isaac struck St. John Parish. He remembers standing on the steps of the Percy Hebert building as Hurricane Katrina came to shore. Standing among the howling winds, he watched tree limbs and debris whip fly through the air, and it made him consider whether the Parish facilities were strong enough to endure a brutal storm.

“I knew we needed something to better protect first responders,” Tregre said. “This building is definitely a big part of that. I hope we never have to use it. If we do need it, dispatchers and everybody operating EOC can come and take a break in a nice, safe and secure location.”

Tregre said the Safe Room would also bring peace of mind to the families of essential personnel who are evacuating without their loved ones.

Casey Tingle, a representative of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP), was present for the ribbon-cutting event.

“You face these disasters. You make your way through them, but then opportunities show themselves afterwards in how you better protect your people, your citizens and communities,” Tingle said. “This is a very tangible and lasting example of what Isaac did to the community and also what the community did in response.”

Tingle looks forward to seeing how the Safe Room could be used outside of disasters for everyday training and other opportunities. Robottom said other potential uses for the Safe Room are being discussed.

GOHSEP and FEMA each contributed to funding disaster relief in St. John Parish in the wake of Hurricane Isaac.

The Safe Room is not the only public safety investment St. John Parish has made as of late. The St. John Sheriff’s Office and the Office of Fire Services joined forces to fund the West Bank Public Safety Complex, which is currently under construction near the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge on Highway 18 in Wallace. Another project involves a new tower intended to eliminate dead zones and enhance 911 communications.

Additionally, FEMA has extended 100 percent funding for ongoing drainage improvements in Reserve. For more information about parish projects, please visit