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Gimme Shelter

 

Writing an editorial with a hurricane aimed at your state is a bit like putting a message in a bottle. At presstime, Hurricane Lili was predicted to slam into the Gulf Coast by the time this newspaper is published and distributed. Indications are that Lili, which began its trek in our direction while we were still battening down for Tropical Storm Isidore, is headed to southwest Louisiana. Of course, we have no foolproof way of predicting just where Lili will hit and with what effect.

Yet Isidore and Lili have reminded us of one certainty: there is too much unfinished business on evacuation routes out of South Louisiana.

Isidore quickly flooded major escape routes from Interstate-10 West in New Orleans and state Highway 1 at Port Fouchon, the state's busiest oil and gas port. Hundreds of thousands of people were unable to get out of the way of potential harm. Now, one unfortunate consequence of Isidore is the undermining of public confidence in our government and emergency officials' ability to adequately protect our lives and property.

In New Orleans, residents found it hard to believe that emergency officials still had not prepared emergency evacuation alternative routes to overcome the notoriously flood-prone road dip underneath the Southern Railroad trestle at I-10. Moreover, four years after 1.5 million people fled southeast Louisiana to escape Hurricane Georges -- the largest evacuation in the history of the Gulf Coast -- construction of a pumping station for the dip is still 20 months from completion. That's two hurricane seasons away.

Authorities seemed to have learned some quick, painful lessons from the public response to Isidore. State Sen. Francis Heitmeier, chair of the House transportation committee, spoke for many public officials and emergency planners last week when he acknowledged, "We got caught with our pants down." With Lili bearing down on the coast, Heitmeier and other state officials stepped up efforts to design alternative escape routes. Meanwhile, while the sun was still shining, municipal authorities from Grand Isle northward openly discussed, and thereby tacitly encouraged, early "voluntary" evacuations.

On Sept. 28, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu called a hurricane preparedness meeting of top officials from Orleans, St. Tammany, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes. Landrieu's visitor, Sen. Jim Jeffords (Ind-Vt.), who chairs a Senate committee that is working on $280 billion national transportation and public works appropriations bill, heard concerns such as the need for multi-million dollar emergency back-up generators for pumping stations, flood protection for evacuation routes, and a light rail system to evacuate the indigent and disabled. The hastily called summit was certainly a good photo op for Landrieu, who is seeking re-election. But it was also a good idea, and it should serve as a model for future regional cooperation on disasters.

Isidore also provided Mayor Ray Nagin his first experience with the city's Office of Emergency Preparedness atop City Hall. Nagin noted that an estimated 100,000 residents of the city rely on public transportation, and he said he hopes federal support for a future light rail system will enable the city to evacuate these residents to Louis Armstrong International Airport and points beyond.

In addition, Nagin deplored the "patchwork of networks among the parishes in terms of [emergency] communications and technology." We expect police and emergency agencies to be talking to each other on the same radio channel during an emergency. Apparently, they were not, at least not during Isidore. Nagin is correct to worry publicly about such a lack of coordination, and we share his concern.

Following Isidore, Jefferson Parish President Tim Coulon dryly observed: "Here in Louisiana, floods are not an act of God, they are a politician's fault." Thanks to a federally funded flood prevention project, the suburban parish is better protected than when Coulon took office in 1995, he said. Still, Coulon, added, the parish is in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) top 10 for "most flood plain regions."

Coulon noted that, during Isidore, one pump went out of commission with no back-up generator. "Each [back-up] costs $2 million," he said. "Unlike some people would suggest, I can't got to Home Depot or Lowe's to get a replacement."

Landrieu recently won a Senate committee's approval for $9 million in federal funds for two highway upgrades critical for future evacuations: $4.5 million for two-lane Louisiana 1, the only evacuation route for Grand Isle, Port Fourchon and much of Lafourche Parish. An equal amount will fund the construction of the southern extension of Interstate 49, linking the West Bank Expressway to the city of Lafayette. Landrieu's projects come for a vote in the full Senate at a date to be announced, an aide to the senator said. Both measures deserve the bi-partisan support of every Louisianan.

As Coulon said emotionally of hurricane protection requests, "It's not pork barrel; it's real life." With Lili bearing down on the Louisiana coastline, that's the message we need to send out any way we can.

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