With hurricane season only a week away, local and state officials assess the worst-case scenario for Acadiana.
One hundred miles to the east and the west never felt so close.
Last Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina slammed into Buras as a Category 3 hurricane with 125 mile per hour winds, just south of New Orleans. It spawned a catastrophic sequence of events for New Orleans and surrounding parishes that scientists had predicted for years. Less than a month later, Hurricane Rita roared onto shore between Sabine Pass, Texas and Johnson's Bayou as a Category 3 storm with winds of 115 miles per hour. Cameron Parish was essentially wiped from the face of the map, and towns like Cameron, Creole, Grand Chenier, Hackberry and Holly Beach were decimated.
Throughout the deadliest hurricane season on record, Lafayette sat relatively unscathed in the middle, taking in family, friends and strangers who had lost their loved ones, their homes and their jobs. Katrina and Rita were grim reminders of Acadiana's vulnerability to hurricanes and have made preparations for the 2006 hurricane season more important than ever.
Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel says Lafayette's 2006 hurricane plan isn't radically different from past years. "We've had hurricanes and threats of hurricanes for a long time, so you tweak things," notes Durel. "We're well-prepared. We've got a great team of police, fire, sheriff's office, emergency operations personnel, traffic and transportation, and public works. I've got all the confidence in the world in those people. They've been training for this."
Despite advance planning, both state and local officials warn that the only safeguard for residents from an approaching and potentially devastating hurricane to Acadiana is to move to safer ground. And all roads to safety lead to I-49, the only main artery north for Lafayette and the surrounding parishes. For the first time, a contraflow plan for the area is an option for 2006, a plan reserved for dire situations that calls for all four lanes of I-49 to head north out of Lafayette.
In the event of a south Louisiana hurricane evacuation, the state contends it has designated shelter locations throughout central and north Louisiana. But in a troubling sign of continued poor communication between government agencies, the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and the Louisiana Department of Social Services each told The Independent Weekly that the other agency was responsible for the state's shelter plan.
With hurricane season one week away and forecasters predicting an equally busy season, the murky status of a number of storm-related issues begs the question: are we prepared for the next major hurricane that takes aim at Acadiana?
There has never been a mandatory evacuation of Lafayette Parish. "We will never have a mandatory evacuation," Durel says. The former businessman is concerned about the legal obligations and ramifications for Lafayette Consolidated Government if it orders a mandatory evacuation. "That's one of the things I talked to FEMA about," he says. "We shouldn't, as mayors, be making decisions based on worrying about getting sued in a situation like that. We shouldn't have to make decisions made on financial situations. Those are two things that I feel need to be addressed." Durel wonders, for example, if his administration ordered a mandatory evacuation and if a resident were to die in an accident on the roadway, would local government be held accountable?
But is there any scenario where Durel's administration would call for a mandatory evacuation? "I have to believe that there is a situation where [a mandatory evacuation] would happen," he adds. "What it is, nobody's ever told me." The idea of a mandatory evacuation was considered before Hurricane Rita, but residents were instead warned to evacuate if their homes had flooded in past storms. "I could definitely see us saying mandatory evacuation for a worst-case scenario, especially wind, for the southern portions of the parish," Durel says, "but I don't know how much farther we would go than Ambassador Caffery."
There are three levels of evacuation ' voluntary, recommended and mandatory. "We're going to concentrate on a common sense approach through recommended [evacuation] and provide the people with all the information they need to make decisions," says Bill Vincent, director of the Lafayette Parish Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness. Even for Hurricane Lili in 2002, Vincent notes only the southern portion of the parish was recommended to evacuate. According to the National Hurricane Center, when Lili made landfall on Louisiana's coast, the storm had weakened to a Category 1 storm but still managed to stymie oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, flatten sugar cane fields, and cause $860 million worth of damage, most of it in Louisiana.
The worst-case scenario for Lafayette is a Category 5 hurricane making landfall just west of Vermilion Bay, with the storm's northeasterly winds pushing storm surge from the Gulf up the Vermilion River. But Dr. Ehab Amin Meselhe, associate professor of UL Lafayette's College of Engineering and senior engineer for Fenstermaker & Associates' Hydrology & Hydraulics Services, says the city of Lafayette is too far inland for storm surge to be a major concern. "It could channel through the Vermilion River, but it will lose energy as it's going up," he says.
Since storm surge diminishes in height approximately a foot for every mile it moves inland, C.H. Fenstermaker & Associates President Bill Fenstermaker estimates that even a 25-foot storm surge would be dissipated if it made it as far as New Iberia's railroad tracks.
"Lafayette is about 30-35 miles from the coast," Fenstermaker says. "The other thing you have to remember is we have the Jefferson Island salt dome, the Avery Island salt dome and the Weeks Island salt dome. They would also offer a buffer or resistance that would be much greater than marsh."
But reassurances on storm surge are no comfort when it comes to the other dangers associated with a major hurricane. "Due to our proximity to the coast," says Vincent, "we would be subject to Category 5 winds, which are sustained winds of 155 miles an hour or greater, catastrophic wind damage and also the rainfall flooding. That would be the worst case."
Durel concurs: "The biggest risk to Lafayette is the wind damage."
Since no one can predict the severity of the next hurricane to hit Acadiana, local and state officials are hammering a familiar mantra: be prepared, don't wait until the last minute to evacuate, and then head north. In a statement issued last week by the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP), it's estimated that in a worst-case scenario, as many as 250,000 residents could face evacuation from south Louisiana.
Vincent says Lafayette's evacuation plan is part of a larger emergency strategy for the region and the state. During a major hurricane of Category 3 strength or stronger, the plan calls for south Louisiana residents to head toward central and northern Louisiana. For Acadiana residents, that means all roads eventually lead to I-49 ' and that holds true for other possible evacuees coming from southeastern Louisiana on I-10 or U.S. Hwy. 90.
On an average day, 23,000 vehicles pass through Broussard to Lafayette on Hwy. 90. Bill Fontenot, district engineer administrator with the Louisiana Department of Transportation, estimates that at the peak of the Hurricane Katrina evacuation, there were at least 40,000 vehicles on Hwy. 90 that Sunday, a day that usually sees only about 13,000 vehicles. Fontenot advises local residents to use back roads when possible in the earlier stages of evacuation and then to make their way to I-49. "Get out of the way of evacuees if at all possible," he says.
The phased evacuation plan for south Louisiana is based on location and estimates of when the storm could reach land. The first phase calls for residents in the southernmost part of the state ' below the Intracoastal Waterway ' to evacuate 50 hours before the onset of tropical winds. The second phase calls for the area west of the Mississippi River, north of the Intracoastal Waterway and south of I-10, to evacuate 40 hours before the storm hits. And the final phase calls for the Baton Rouge and New Orleans area south of Interstate 12 to evacuate 30 hours before the storm. In the last phase, New Orleans' contraflow plan ' where all lanes of traffic are directed out of the region ' is implemented.
New Orleans is no stranger to the contraflow concept, but it's a new one for both Lake Charles and Lafayette. Fontenot says the plan is to use all four lanes of I-49 for northbound traffic, beginning south of I-10 and stretching to exit 27, north of Washington. "We wouldn't go to contraflow until I-49 starts to slow down," he says. "This is being proactive. We wouldn't expect to use contraflow unless there is a 4 or 5 coming immediately or directly into Vermilion Bay and Lafayette would start to evacuate because that would really load up I-49."
Fontenot warns that contraflow doesn't make evacuation any less urgent. "Contraflow is not to provide comfort, as an easier and quicker way to get out," he says. "You still need to leave early. You can't leave a little later because contraflow is in effect. Contraflow is to be used as a last resort because it's a very risky operation to send people up the wrong way. Plus it takes a lot of resources to close those ramps and send people up the other way."
Construction is ongoing at the I-49 and I-10 interchange to add an additional lane of traffic to I-49 for vehicles exiting I-10 and heading north. The stretch begins south of the interchange to Pont des Mouton Road, and construction should be completed by June 1. Fontenot says, "It's our experience in these hurricane evacuations, once traffic reaches that latitude of I-10 and gets onto Interstate 49, it flows freely without interruption, with traffic usually moving at 50 to 70 miles per hour." Vincent says a checkpoint will be established on I-49 at exit 53 outside of Bunkie for information on shelters in central and northern Louisiana.
During last year's hurricane season, GOHSEP estimates that 45,000 residents sought shelter in Louisiana and an additional 140,000 found shelter out of state. Some 18,500 Louisiana residents found shelter at the Cajundome, with a maximum head count of 7,000 evacuees. Tony Credeur, executive director of the Acadiana chapter of the American Red Cross, points out that the Cajundome was one of 13 shelters in the area and estimates that the Red Cross processed some 50,000 applications for assistance.
Vincent says the area south of I-10 ' a region more susceptible to tropical storm winds than the northern regions of the state ' is considered a non-sheltering area. "In a major hurricane there is no sheltering in Lafayette or anywhere in our immediate area because it's not a safe place," he says. But last year, because of the severity of Katrina and later Rita, Lafayette did shelter evacuees. Both Durel and Cajundome Director Greg Davis have stated that Lafayette will not close its doors to Louisiana residents seeking shelter. Says Terri Ricks, undersecretary of the Department of Social Services, "Operating shelters south of I-10 will be exercised only under the strictest of safety standards."
The state claims to have identified shelter space for up to 55,000 evacuees. Additionally, to ensure availability for evacuees arriving by local or state transportation, the state will run its own shelters and hopes to be able to house 10,000 residents.
Vincent says the state and LCG have plans for transporting special-needs residents and residents without transportation to a central location in Lafayette for evacuation. "We would use everything available to us," he says. "We would pull from all resources, maybe city buses, school buses. We plan to and we will access all resources necessary to make that happen." The Independent was unable to obtain specifics of the Lafayette plan, since LCG's director of Traffic and Transportation Tony Tramel did not return multiple requests for comment.
The Louisiana Shelter Task Force, in conjunction with the Louisiana Department of Social Services, the American Red Cross and local parishes, is devising the state's shelter plan. Ann Williamson, secretary of DSS, issued a joint statement with GOHSEP last week that urged residents to start making evacuation plans now and to consider shelters only as a last resort.
Early last week, Mark Smith with GOHSEP said the state's shelter plan would be made public June 1. But Vic Howell, CEO of the Louisiana Capital Area Chapter of the American Red Cross, said that the Red Cross and the state would not make that list of shelters available to the public.
"So many variables exist during a storm," Howell stated. "The path of a storm can be very uncertain, and we wouldn't want someone to count on traveling to a shelter that for whatever reason cannot be used for that emergency event. ... And we certainly don't want to add to an evacuee's frustration by fostering the expectation that comes from having a specific shelter in mind."
In this instance, the state doesn't appear to have learned any lessons from last year's hurricane season. When The Independent Weekly asked for clarification on aspects of the state's shelter plan, GOHSEP referred us to the Department of Social Services. DSS then referred us back to GOHSEP, whose spokesman Smith stated he could not speak about the plan because it is a DSS program.
Eight months after Katrina and Rita, it's a reminder for local residents that government doesn't have all the answers for this hurricane season. The bottom line, according to Vincent: "Look out for your family, and look out for your neighbor. We're all in this together."
PLANNING FOR AN EVACUATION
Review the community evacuation plans.
Learn the evacuation routes. If you do not own a car, make transportation arrangements with family or friends.
Talk with your family about the possibility of evacuation.
Plan where you would go if you had to leave the community. Determine how you might get there.
Plan a place to meet your family in case you are
separated from one another in a disaster.
Ask a friend outside your state to be the checkpoint so that everyone in the family can call that person to say they are safe.
Assemble a disaster supplies kit. For a detailed list of items, see the 2006 Louisiana Citizen Awareness & Disaster Evacuation Guide provided by the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness at http://www.ohsep.louisiana.gov/evacinfo/stateevacrtes.htm
Keep fuel in your vehicle if an evacuation seems likely.
Gas stations may be closed during emergencies.
Know how to shut off the electricity, gas and water to your home. Remember to have any tools necessary to do this.
To see information about Lafayette Parish evacuation plans,
Source: The Lafayette City-Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness
http://www.lafayetteoep.org/, phone: (337) 291-5075
YOUR EVACUATION PLAN
If you have only moments before leaving, grab these things and go:
Medical supplies: prescription medications and dentures.
Disaster supplies: flashlight, batteries, radio, first aid kit, bottled water
Clothing and bedding: a change of clothes and a sleeping bag or bedroll and pillow for each household member
Car keys and keys to the place you may be going (friend's or relative's home)
If local officials haven't advised an immediate evacuation:
If there's a chance the weather may get worse or flooding may happen, take steps now to protect your home and belongings. Do this only if local officials have not asked you to leave.
PROTECT YOUR HOME
Bring things indoors. Lawn furniture, trash cans, children's toys, garden equipment, clotheslines, hanging plants, and any other objects that may fly around and damage property should be brought indoors.
Leave trees and shrubs alone. If you did not cut away dead or diseased branches or limbs from trees and shrubs, leave them alone. Local rubbish collection services will not have time before the storm to pick anything up.
Look for potential hazards. Look for unripened fruit and other objects in trees around your property that could blow or break off and fly around in high winds. Cut them off and store them indoors until the storm is over.
Turn off electricity and water. Turn off electricity at the main fuse or breaker, and turn off water at the main valve.
Leave natural gas on. Unless local officials advise otherwise, leave natural gas on because you will need it for heating and cooking when you return home. If you turn gas off, a licensed professional is required to turn it back on, and it may take weeks for a professional to respond.
Turn off propane gas service. Propane tanks often become dislodged in disasters.
If flooding is expected, consider using sand bags to keep water away from your home. It takes two people about one hour to fill and place 100 sandbags, giving you a wall 1 foot high and 20 feet long. Make sure you have enough sand, burlap or plastic bags, shovels, strong helpers, and time to place them properly.
Remember. Houses do not explode due to air pressure differences. Damage happens when wind gets inside a home through a broken window, door, or damaged roof.
Cover the outside of windows with shutters or plywood. Use shutters that are rated to provide significant protection from windblown debris, or fit plywood coverings over all windows. Tape does not prevent windows from breaking. All tape does is prevent windows from shattering. Using tape on windows is not recommended.
PROTECT YOUR VALUABLES
Move objects that may get damaged by wind or water to safer areas of your home. Move television sets, computers, stereo and electronic equipment, as well as easily moveable appliances like a microwave oven to higher levels of your home and away from windows. Wrap them in sheets, blankets, or burlap.
Make a visual or written record of all of your household possessions. Record model and serial numbers. This list could help you prove the value of what you owned if those possessions are damaged or destroyed and can assist you to claim deductions on taxes. Do this for all items in your home, including expensive items such as sofas, chairs, tables, beds, chests, wall units, and any other furniture too heavy to move. Store a copy of the record somewhere away from home, such as in a safe deposit box.
If it's possible that your home may be significantly damaged by impending disaster, consider storing your household furnishings temporarily elsewhere.
GATHER ESSENTIAL SUPPLIES AND PAPERS
You will need the following supplies when you leave your home; put them all together in a duffle bag or other large container in advance:
Flashlight with plenty of extra batteries
Battery-powered radio with extra batteries
First aid kit
Prescription medications in their original bottle, plus copies of the prescriptions
Eyeglasses (with a copy of the prescription)
Water (at least one gallon per person is recommended; more is better)
Foods that do not require refrigeration or cooking
Items that infants and elderly household members may require
Medical equipment and devices, such as dentures, crutches, prostheses, etc.
Change of clothes for each household member
Sleeping bag or bedroll and pillow for each household member
Checkbook, cash, and credit cards
Map of the area
Important papers to take with you:
Driver's license or personal identification
Social Security card
Proof of residence (deed or lease)
Birth and marriage certificates
Stocks, bonds, and other negotiable certificates
Wills, deeds, and copies of recent tax returns
Source: the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness
- additional reporting by Scott Jordan