Jeremy Alford

State prepares search-and-rescue operations

by Jeremy Alford

With Gustav approaching the Gulf of Mexico’s warm, energy-charged waters, and another tropical storm developing off the Atlantic, the Louisiana department that normally serves the state’s hunters and fishermen is gearing up for potential search-and-rescue operations. Gustav has already proven fatal in the Caribbean, where its floodwaters and wind gusts nearing 90 miles per hour have already taken at least 59 lives. The storm formed on Monday and has become the third hurricane of the 2008 season, ravaging portions of Haiti and Jamaica along the way.

The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, however, has been here before. Using its enforcement agents and agency vessels, the department rescued more than 20,000 people during the 2005 storm season, when hurricanes Katrina and Rita carved their way through opposite ends of Louisiana’s coastline. Press Secretary Bo Boehringer said Thursday that Katrina, which made landfall three years ago today, in particular offered dramatic lessons to be learned. That’s why, in concert with additional training and planning, the departments feels it is better prepared than ever, he said.

The department is coordinating efforts with the National Guard and Coast Guard and parishes with flotilla teams within their sheriff’s offices have also been put on alert. As such, public appeals for volunteer boaters to donate time and their crafts, like those broadcasted in 2005, are not likely, Boehringer said.

Plans for shallow-water and second-story rescues have likewise been put in place, he added, and communications have been enhanced significantly through upgraded radios and new interoperability guidelines. As of Thursday, staging sections, complete with fuel and supplies, were already going up in coastal areas to support these operations. “That’s the new game plan,” Boehringer said, “and we are way ahead of the game.”

Internally, he said the department’s various biological offices along the coast are in the process of being cleared out, with employees brining sensitive equipment and important documents to higher ground. The Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, the board that oversees the department, is also in limbo and may be forced to cancel its meeting next week depending on Gustav’s trajectory.

As for its normal responsibilities, the department is urging boaters and camp-owners to act now and take the necessary precautions. Within the next 48 hours, state officials could issue a declaration of emergency, call for evacuations and direct all interstate traffic away from the impact zone, a procedure known as Contraflow. Once this happens, law enforcement officials will not allow boats or trailers on roadways. Water traffic will be shutdown, too.