Officials nail down storm plans
As season peaks, bus evacuation arranged
Sunday, August 20, 2006
By Michelle Krupa
The first post-Katrina hurricane season has, so far, prompted little more from southeast Louisiana residents than a giant sigh of relief. With more than a third of the season gone, nary the hint of a catastrophic weather system has blown toward New Orleans, sparing residents the harrowing question of whether to evacuate.
But historically speaking, the curtain is just now rising on the main attraction. Today marks the beginning of a six-week period ending Oct. 1 that usually is the most active part of hurricane season. With memories still fresh of the tremendous suffering of people who rode out Katrina almost a year ago, officials said they are close to nailing down plans to assist those who lack the resources to get out of harm's way.
As the season's busiest period begins, they are urging people who intend to use such programs, including the elderly and those with medical needs, to register with their city or parish.
Whether residents intend to evacuate on state-sponsored buses or in their own vehicles through the interstate contraflow routes, the message of city and parish leaders to everyone is clear: Have a plan to get out.
"Each hurricane is an individual entity. You can't just say that because I survived Hurricane X you have any degree of surviving the next one," said Emil Lafourcade, a Kenner city official. "You can replace everything but your life."
Forecasters agree, saying the season's early lull should not be mistaken as a harbinger of unremarkable months to come.
"You must have your guard up the same, no matter what anybody says about the forecast," said Stanley Goldenberg, a meteorologist in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's hurricane research division. "It ain't over until the last storm dies out."
The earlier the better
In New Orleans and Jefferson Parish, the renewed calls for residents to have a plan come with a word of advice and a staunch warning from public officials to anyone who plans to rely on public evacuation programs: Get into the system early, and then forget about having much say over what happens from there.
Emergency planning directors in the two parishes expect as many as 30,000 people, about the number who sought refuge in the Superdome during Katrina, to seek help from local governments to evacuate.
They're asking residents to begin using public transit to head to three main gathering centers no later than 50 hours before tropical storm-force winds of a Category 3 storm, or any stronger hurricane, are predicted to reach the Louisiana coast.
Terry Ebbert, New Orleans' homeland security director, said he realizes it might seem premature to ask people to begin moving out more than two days before the wind starts whipping, especially because a storm's course could shift dramatically. But for a mass evacuation to succeed, city officials and residents must start early, he said.
"They've got to make their decisions early. Our goal is to get as much of the city-assisted evacuation completed before contraflow kicks in" 30 hours before tropical-storm-force winds lash the coast, Ebbert said. "We don't want to put large numbers of buses into the contraflow traffic."
The early action will be necessary, Ebbert added, because New Orleans does not intend to operate a shelter during a storm of Category 3 or stronger. Instead, Regional Transit Authority buses would transport residents who don't have vehicles from 13 neighborhood sites to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center beginning about 54 hours before winds are expected to kick up. The sites are listed at the city's Web site, www.cityofno.com.
Though city officials are negotiating with the RTA to provide drivers, Ebbert said that because of the potentially dangerous nature of the assignment, RTA personnel will be asked to volunteer. Meanwhile, National Guard soldiers have been trained to drive the buses and could be used on as many as 100 if needed.
Jeff bus plans in place
Jefferson Parish also has nixed previous plans for a shelter of last resort during severe storms, though it will provide emergency shelters for trailer dwellers at Girard Playground in Metairie and PARD Playground in Marrero during tropical storms or hurricanes of Category 1 or 2.
During a Category 3 or stronger storm, Jefferson Transit buses would circulate through neighborhoods beginning 54 hours ahead of a storm's arrival. They would take residents to the John A. Alario Sr. Event Center on the West Bank and the Joseph S. Yenni government building on the east bank. Firefighters have been trained in case the parish's contractor, ATC/Vancom, cannot provide drivers, emergency management chief Deano Bonano said.
At the gathering points in both parishes, residents would be registered and directed to buses provided by the state, said Mark Smith, a spokesman for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Agreements for 400 chartered buses and 300 school buses, all with private or National Guard drivers, have been signed, he said, and those buses would be dispatched statewide based on the areas of greatest need. If more buses are needed, Smith said, federal resources would be tapped.
In New Orleans, as many as 5,000 of the most frail residents would be transported by bus from the Convention Center to the Union Passenger Terminal downtown, where they would board Amtrak trains to Baton Rouge and Hammond, Ebbert said. From there, they would ride state-provided buses to shelters also designated by the state.
But Ebbert said the city's contract with Amtrak isn't finalized.
"The challenge that we're still dealing with on the utilization of the train is the distribution point of where we take the people to," he said, adding that those details should be cemented "very soon."
No control over destination
As for the final destinations of all evacuees, Ebbert said residents would be told where a bus or train is headed before they get on board. But he stressed there would be no preferential assignments and no switching seats.
"If you want to have some control over your destiny, you have to make some plan to leave the city of New Orleans by your own means," Ebbert said. "One of the great disadvantages of city-assisted evacuation is that once you turn yourself over to the city, you're going to go where we send you.
"No bus will leave the Convention Center without a designated destination," he added. "But you will not be able to pick. We cannot accommodate. This is not an airline where we can get you to anyplace."
New Orleans officials have asked residents who expect to use the city-assisted evacuation program to identify themselves by calling the 311 telephone hotline. Residents also can request specialized transportation, possibly an ambulance or police car, to get them from their home to a neighborhood gathering site.
Only about 700 people have signed up so far, Ebbert said, though residents do not have to sign up to get a free ride out of town.
Jefferson officials plan to activate a phone number that elderly and disabled residents can use to request a ride to the drop-off centers directly from their home. The number will be announced as a storm approaches, Bonano said.
Clearing out tourists
As for tourists, Ebbert said two processing centers would open in the Central Business District area as a Category 3 or stronger storm approaches the city. Visitors would need to show proof of an outbound airline ticket to get a ride on buses provided by the state to Louis Armstrong International Airport.
The city plans to inform tourists of the locations through their hotels to deter city residents from showing up at tourists' gathering sites, Ebbert said. He said he is not aware of any hotel that intends to shelter evacuees, though he said some are expected to house first-responders and their own essential employees.
Once a storm passes, state officials plan to use the same chartered buses and school buses that carried evacuees to shelters across the state to return residents to the gathering sites in their respective parishes, Smith said.
"We will take them from their parish pickup point to the shelters, and as the parishes reopen, those buses will be kept on hand . . . so we can return Louisiana citizens to their homes," Smith said, though he added that the plan could be adjusted or even scrapped if a hurricane rendered an area uninhabitable for an extended period, as Katrina did.
It is unclear, however, how that policy would affect New Orleans, which remains one of the area's most vulnerable locations. Ebbert said last week that New Orleans has no plan for bringing its residents back to their neighborhoods.
"You can't have a plan for re-entry into the city because you don't know if you're left with devastation like a Katrina or just a brush," he said. "This process is a one-way street once you get involved."
Coastal parishes prepare
Evacuation plans are somewhat less regimented in the coastal parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines, though the sense of urgency, given Katrina's near-complete swamping of both areas, is perhaps more intense.
St. Bernard officials have recommended that parish residents, most of whom are living in trailers, evacuate at least 72 hours before tropical-storm-force winds reach land. That's quite a difference from their pre-Katrina suggestion that resident leave 50 hours before a hurricane of Category 2 strength or greater.
But parish officials don't expect major delays in evacuating St. Bernard because its population has shrunk dramatically, from 67,000 before Katrina to an estimated 16,000 to 20,000 residents now.
n the biggest policy change sparked by Katrina, officials will not open any emergency shelters inside St. Bernard. Damage from the Aug. 29 storm was so extensive, they have said, that no buildings are safe for shelter.
In Plaquemines, officials will call a mandatory evacuation of the southern end and eastern section of the parish for any hurricane. Parish President Benny Rousselle said a mandatory evacuation order might be issued for tropical storms as well, depending on the track of the storm.
"This is stuff that changes from day to day based on the track of the storm," he said.
For storms of Category 1 or weaker, the parish plans to operate an emergency shelter at Belle Chasse High School. Rousselle said as many as 1,500 people have sheltered there for past hurricanes. But there will be no public shelter for a storm of Category 2 or stronger, he said.
For residents without transportation, the parish will provide bus service to Belle Chasse High School during an evacuation. From there, the National Guard will transport residents by bus to state emergency shelters, he said.
Essential employees will ride out the storm at the parish's emergency operations center in Belle Chasse, Rousselle said, and pump operators will remain on duty during hurricanes.
Pickups in Tammany
Though St. Tammany Parish has no public transit system, officials have established four pickup points from which residents would be collected by state-provided buses in the event of a major hurricane, Parish President Kevin Davis said.
"We're fortunate that most of our residents have transportation," he said. "We didn't find that was a huge issue" after Katrina.
St. Tammany officials have not said what strength a hurricane would have to reach to trigger the program, nor have they publicly named the pickup points. Parish spokeswoman Suzanne Parsons-Stymiest said locations would depend upon the direction of the storm and the availability of buses.
The parish yearly encourages special-needs residents to preregister for shelter by filling out forms at any of several government offices or hospitals, and it housed about 600 such residents during Hurricane Katrina, Davis said.
Though many residents got rides to the shelters from their caregivers, rescue workers and other personnel would be available to pick them up, Davis said. "If you can't get to us, we'll come to get you," he said.
So far this year, 500 residents have registered, Parsons-Stymiest said.
St. Tammany ordered the evacuation of its hotels during Katrina, and Davis said he plans to do that again if a severe storm threatens.
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Reporters Bruce Hamilton, Michelle Hunter, Kate Moran, Mary Swerczek and Bob Warren contributed to this story.
Michelle Krupa can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3312.