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Weathering the Storm 

With hurricane season approaching, experts advise residents to make their own emergency plans, and not to rely on the government.

Rely on yourself, and do it for your family. That's the advice of disaster planning experts at the local, state and federal levels for the upcoming hurricane season. Now is the time to plan for storms -- because nobody else is going to do it for you.

Katrina certainly taught us that much.

"People have to understand that government is the last resort," says Mark Smith, press officer for the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP). "People have got to step up and take responsibility for themselves and their families."

That doesn't mean going it alone. Governmental agencies and charitable organizations like the Red Cross provide a number of resources that make the planning process easier and more defined. According to Smith, the state evacuation plan and other helpful information is available online at www.ohsep.louisiana.gov/hurricanerelated/hurricaneindex.htm, and at a number of franchise stores and offices, including Lowe's, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Louisiana Department of Transportation offices and some United Way offices. The plan details the state's contraflow route and what individuals and families should do in case of a mandatory evacuation.

The Red Cross' "Hurricane Awareness" site, http://www.redcross.org/news/ds/0305hurricane, offers information for before, during and after a storm. One of the most important items is the "Build a Disaster Supplies Kit," which is a checklist of items to purchase and have readily available for travel or for riding out a storm at home. The list is fairly extensive, so it's a good idea to assemble what you already have on hand, and then purchase a few items every week until you have a complete kit.

Another valuable tool on the Red Cross site is the "Hurricane Evacuation Checklist." At the top of this page is the "Family Communications Plan Steps." The steps seem obvious, but they are critical and are best completed before you are rushing to get out of town:

• Write out evacuation routes. Experts suggest having at least three routes, depending on the storm's direction. Take your pets with you, and be sure to bring enough food and water for a few days.

• Develop a family communication plan, which means providing detailed information -- name, cell phone and email address -- for each family member. Give this information to a relative living outside the metro area. During an evacuation, this designated person will become the central communication point for displaced and concerned family members. All family members should know to contact the designated person to let him or her know their whereabouts or ask where evacuated family members have gone. Smith says this is essential for both immediate family members and any extended family. As Smith puts it, folks shouldn't have to ask, "Hey, where's mom?"

• Although it's not included on the evacuation checklist, make sure any vehicle you may use to evacuate is road worthy. Get a tune-up, and have your mechanic check your tires -- including the spare -- along with lights, hoses and engine coolant. For emergencies, store a jack, wrench, tool kit and fire extinguisher in your trunk. Throughout hurricane season -- June 1 through Nov. 30 -- try to keep your car's gas tank full and buy maps that go beyond your evacuation route in case you need to go farther than originally planned.

So when do you leave? Unless it's a mandatory evacuation -- a Category 3 hurricane or higher -- it's your decision, but here are some factors to consider: present living conditions, the type of approaching storm and post-storm conditions.

For those still living in FEMA trailers, which are not built to withstand high winds, Col. Jerry Sneed, emergency preparedness director for New Orleans, advises leaving in the event of a tropical storm or higher. Sneed says his office currently is working on providing shelters in the city for Category 2 hurricanes or lower-rated storms, but he feels the only people who will need temporary housing are those currently living in or near FEMA trailers.

His counterpart in Jefferson Parish, Deano Bonano, deputy chief administrative assistant for Emergency Operations, says, "Anyone who feels they need it" can use the Jefferson shelters for Category 1 or 2 hurricanes. Addresses for shelter sites will be announced to the public as a storm approaches.

Bob Breck, chief meteorologist for Fox 8 News, says people residing in stable permanent housing should use common sense and watch the weather forecast when deciding whether or not to leave the area in the face of a storm. As for upcoming predictions that this hurricane season will be an unusually active one, Breck isn't overly concerned.

"I think they're folly," Breck says. "Because of the fragile psyche of our residents here, I would prefer not to alarm them with big numbers that may not happen."

Breck believes that more attention should be paid to the speed of the storm and the storm's track. A slow-moving storm will increase the amount of storm surge, which could spell bad news for the metro area in terms of flooding.

Vic Harris, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson, agrees with Breck that storm track and its speed traveling forward are better predictors of the level of storm surge than the storm's category, which measures the hurricane's interior wind speed. Harris says that Hurricane Katrina's storm surge caused the breaches in the city's interior canals, but that floodgates installed since that storm will prevent that from occurring again, lessening the chance of catastrophic flooding.

"By putting these gates there, it mitigates the walls and takes them out of the equation to a large degree," Harris says. "We're very confident the walls will hold along the outfall canals."

Matt McBride, a local mechanical engineer and a watchdog over Corps of Engineers work, says this confidence in the floodgates protecting the canal walls comes at a price.

"The Corps is essentially sacrificing neighborhoods and property to save their walls," McBride says. When water levels reach a certain point in these canals (Orleans, London, and 17th Street), he says, the floodgates will be closed. Harris concurs and says surveillance equipment is in place to let the Corps know when the water in the canals is approaching potentially hazardous levels, and the Corps will shut the gates in that event.

Where the two men differ is on what this means to Orleans and Jefferson parishes. When the gates are closed, shutting down the flow of the outfall canals, newly installed pumps at the floodgates will be responsible for getting water out of the metro area. Harris reports that the pumps are operable, continue to be tested for their effectiveness and will get the water out of the city.

McBride counters by pointing out the pumps' previous problems (as reported in Gambit's "Pumped Out" (/dispatch/2007-03-27/news_feat.php) and that there is little reason to believe the pumps or even the gates will function properly. "All of this is based on that the gates will actually work, a largely untested assumption," he says. Although the Corps regularly tests the gates, McBride says there is no way to test them under hurricane conditions until a storm hits. He says he would consider evacuating even for a tropical storm, especially if it appears the floodgates would be closed.

While the possibility of major flooding appears to be a matter of contrasting expert opinions, there are other aspects under your control -- such as your family's comfort level. Sneed cautions that in the event of a Category 1 or 2 storm, the city could be without electricity for days. No telling what kind of family arguments could creep up in the absence of central air-conditioning or without the diversion of a large-screen television set.

"If you want to take a vacation during a storm, it's probably a good time to do it," Sneed says.

If a Category 3 hurricane is predicted to make landfall in the metro area, you won't have to decide whether to stay or go: everybody leaves under mandatory evacuation. Bonano tells the blunt truth: "There is no safe place to shelter in Jefferson Parish for a Category 3 or higher."

The same goes for Orleans Parish, and Sneed stresses that there will be no exceptions. "For Katrina, we heard, 'Oh, we knew the mayor would open up the Superdome eventually,'" Sneed recalls. "It's not going to happen this year, and our citizens need to understand that."

Don't worry, though. Local governments aren't abandoning anyone, and, in fact, if necessary will make sure people are able to leave. Four parishes -- Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Jefferson and Orleans -- have combined forces to manage the hurricane response regionally. For the first time ever, there will be a regional center, located in the Yenni building in Jefferson Parish, where representatives from all four parishes' emergency management staffs, along with a member of the state's office of homeland security and emergency preparedness, will be stationed during and after a storm.

The mandatory evacuation plans for Orleans and Jefferson were developed jointly and are very similar. When a Category 3 or higher storm is approaching the area, officials will announce that buses will pick up those with no means of transportation at various bus stops starting 54 hours before the storm is scheduled to make landfall. The location of the bus stops will be announced at that time. Residents who are 65 years and older are to report to senior-center sites, which will be announced by the city at the appropriate time. If a senior is unable to get to a designated center because of health reasons, they need to let officials know when they sign up for the "City Assisted Evacuation Plan" (CAEP). Those who take a bus should bring necessary carry-on items such as a change of clothes, valuable personal records, medications and identification -- all packed in a bag roughly the size of one that fits in the overhead compartment of an airplane.

The buses will take residents to processing points where their names will be logged, along with the shelter where they will be transported. The New Orleans Arena will serve as the main processing center, as it is close to the Union Passenger Station for trains. Seniors, who will be transported by bus to the arena from the senior sites, and special-needs residents will be put on trains bound for shelters. Buses contracted by the state and federal governments will take all other evacuees from their respective parishes to shelters in the state or, if necessary, out of state.

Those who require this service can bring their pets, but Bonano stresses that they must transport the animals in kennels or cages. After reaching processing points, pets will be identified and their owner's name recorded, then they will be placed on separate buses and taken to shelters. Some pets may be sent to prison facilities, where inmates will care for them, and others will be taken to pet shelters near where their owner is staying. Owners will be able to collect their pets from the processing points after the storm. The state is still working out details of these plans.

To sign up for the "City Assisted Evacuation Plan" (CAEP), residents should call 311. Kurt Amacker, a community preparedness planner for the New Orleans office of homeland security and emergency preparedness, says this call to 311 does not guarantee transportation. The Red Cross will follow up with the applicant with another phone call to make sure the person has absolutely no other way to leave the city.

"We really want to help people who can't truly help themselves," Amacker says.

With 25,000 people to possibly evacuate out of the city, officials are asking residents to explore all options before registering for the evacuation service. A church group or a neighborhood organization might be able to help and "Operation Brother's Keeper" (620-3152) currently is working with these groups and training them for evacuation assistance.

In Jefferson Parish, which could evacuate up to 15,000 residents, Bonano encourages anyone who is handicapped and/or can't drive to register with the Mobility Impaired Transport System (MITS) (889-7156). When a storm is announced, MITS registrants can call to arrange for pickup.

As in the past, Southeast Louisiana will follow the 50/40/30 plan. That means Plaquemines, St. Bernard and lower parts of Jefferson Parish will leave 50 hours before the storm, the West Bank 40 hours and the East Bank 30 hours. State and local officials request that residents heed this plan so that everyone can safely evacuate.

If you plan to stay at a hotel when you evacuate, make sure to create a list of possible hotels and their phone numbers so you can call them once you know what direction you're heading. If you plan to stay in a shelter, there are shelter information points -- rest areas or truck stops -- located above the I-10/I-12 corridor. From there, you will be directed to an available location. Make sure you tell the shelter information staff about any animals traveling with you. Shelter staff members will make every effort to place them in a pet shelter near where you are staying.

Smith says owners are still responsible for feeding and taking care of their pets, so they should bring food, medications, treats and toys for them. As for the family, come equipped with your disaster kit, medications, bedding, toys, etc. Do not, Smith emphasizes, bring any guns, alcohol or illegal drugs.

"It's bad situation," Smith says. "Don't make it worse." He reiterates that personal responsibility and preparation will allow residents to feel less anxious and more in charge of their destinies. He emphasizes, however, that this doesn't translate to making all decisions, particularly when it comes to mandatory evacuations.

"When emergency managers ask you to evacuate, it's time to go," he says.

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