Louisiana Hones Hurricane Evacuation Plans

With the opening of hurricane season looming on June 1, Louisiana officials are preparing for another time of potential risk. Officials are taking the threat seriously but still have a lot to do.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. It's less than two months before the next hurricane season begins and people along the Gulf Coast are worried. As they try to put their lives back together, they're faced with the prospect of more evacuations and another round of storms.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports that officials are struggling to get revised emergency plans in place before the season begins on June 1st.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND CHIMES)

PAM FESSLER: Larry Ingargiola (ph) sits on a wooden deck attached to his new mobile home outside New Orleans. He's having a cold beer after a long workday. And with the wind chimes, hanging plants and lawn furniture, you'd think he'd be able to relax. But Ingargiola heads emergency preparedness for St. Bernard Parish and he knows how precarious life here remains.

LARRY INGARGIOLA: I get a strong wind, my house is gone. I feel like the three little pigs, you know, and the wolf's outside huffing and puffing. This is not a brick house. I feel like I'm in a straw house. And all these little trailers, they are all straw houses.

FESSLER: Right now, about 3,000 parish families live in trailers. And he says more arrive each day.

INGARGIOLA: They telling me that the trailers will withstand 70-mile-an- hour winds. I don't know that. Nobody's tested that yet.

FESSLER: So Ingargiola expects to order earlier and more frequent evacuations this year, even for tropical storms. That's the outlook for the entire Gulf Coast, where almost 100,000 families now live in trailers and mobile homes.

Officials here are worried about a lot of things: weakened levees, depleted resources, but also that some people might take their trailers with them, clogging limited escape routes. Ingargiola says he's confident at least that storm weary residents will go when told, not like last year.

INGARGIOLA: I ended up with 6,000 people left in the parish that we had to physically evacuate and some hardheads didn't want to leave. I don't think I'm going to have any hardheads any more.

VELMA BERG: You won't have to tell me to evacuate.

FESSLER: Velma Berg lives in a trailer nearby and says she'll leave at the slightest hint of trouble. She learned her lesson last August when she and family members had to wade for miles through deep water to escape their flooded home.

BERG: We walked for hours, hours in the water. There was wires hanging down. You didn't know if they were live wires or not. All I did was cried and prayed and laughed.

FESSLER: And that was only the beginning of months of hardship. The worst came in December when Berg's premature great grandson died in a Baton Rouge Hospital. Berg thinks he never recovered from the loss of oxygen when he was evacuated from a New Orleans hospital the day after Katrina hit. She searches through a pile of things on the tiny kitchen table in her FEMA trailer and pulls out a photo.

BERG: Beautiful baby, 10 pounds, two ounces, and big blue eyes, it's hard to tell his eyes are blue, but he had great big blue eyes.

FESSLER: It's such images that haunt people here as they prepare for another hurricane season. Many are extremely nervous. One woman says her four-year-old has all his toys stuffed in a pillowcase, sealed with duct tape, ready to go.

Federal, state and local officials say they're working hard to ease concerns and to be ready for all contingencies. Last week, two dozen emergency managers met in Baton Rouge to discuss evacuation and sheltering plans. Acting FEMA Director David Paulison told reporters afterwards that the Federal Government is poised to help the state and local communities.

DAVID PAULISON: They are identifying the gaps that they're going to have and then we're going to step in an fill in those gaps, primarily with the help of planning and primarily with transportation.

FESSLER: But there's still a frustrating lack of details. State officials say they're going over parish emergency plans right now to figure out specific needs. Louisiana's acting director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, Colonel Jeff Smith, told reporters that a state plan will be ready this month, with practice drills in May.

JEFF SMITH: So we do have a time table laid out. It's been well thought out and it's tracking.

Unidentified Man: So if a hurricane comes on June 3, who's --

SMITH: There are plans.

NORRIS: — who's in charge of getting somebody out of New Orleans or St. Bernard who can't get themselves out? Who's responsible?

SMITH: It's very clear that the evacuation starts at the local level and their plans at the local level are where it starts.

FESSLER: Although, said Smith, the state and federal government will surely have to help. A few feet away, New Orleans Homeland Security Director Terry Ebbert told reports that his city will no longer have a shelter of last resort like the Super Dome. Next time, everyone needs to get out. He's proposed that the federal government work with Amtrak and the airlines to help people evacuate.

TERRY EBBERT: Once they're outside our region, our four-parish, five-parish region, really, then it's the responsibility of the state and the federal government to house those people.

Unidentified Woman: So the Super Dome absolutely will not be used?

EBBERT: That's correct.

FESSLER: But he said the details are still being worked out. He was asked, is he confident that everything will be ready on time?

EBBERT: That's a much better question to ask me on one June.

FESSLER: Just over the state line details are also up in the air.

Hancock County, Mississippi, took the full force of Katrina and officials from FEMA, the Corps of Engineers and the county still meet regularly to update each other on the recovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT MEETING)

NORRIS: I guess we'll start with Bill.

BILL: The Highway Department was out in great numbers yesterday, they did a lot of clean up out there. One thing that's very noticeable --

FESSLER: Piles of debris still line the streets here and bits of cloth and plastic cling to branches 15 feet off the ground. Most of the county's 48,000 residents are back, but almost 10,000 families live in trailers. Brian Adam, the county's emergency manager, says he's in the process of revising all of his plans.

BRIAN ADAM: It's going to be lot of flying debris because they're not made very strong. You know, a good hard wind is gonna tear them apart.

FESSLER: He's working with the state to arrange transportation and shelter for evacuations. He thinks the demands this year could be especially great.

ADAM: A lot of people still don't have vehicles. And a lot of people don't have jobs and have the money to go. That's the problem. I mean, there's a lot of people still out of work.

FESSLER: So he's encouraging Hancock County residents to make their own emergency plans. Down the hall of the Emergency Operations Center, Brice Phillips of Community Radio Station WQRZ makes similar pleas on his daily broadcast.

BRICE PHILLIPS: So start saving those change, that change now, all right? Because a lot of folks last year, you know were asking, well, just give me $5 of gas so I can get out of here.

FESSLER: Right.

PHILLIPS: Well, folks you know what? You need to prepare those plans yourself now. Have a plan.

FESSLER: He warns listeners repeatedly not to take their FEMA trailers with them, that it's unsafe and illegal.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUPPY BARKING)

FESSLER: At the Oakleaf RV Park, nearby, Carol Jacobson says she's heard the speculation that some people might evacuate with their trailers.

CAROL JACOBSON: Can you blame them? You're talking about people that have lost everything. And now you've given them a small, another sense of home while they rebuild or while they find, you know, another home. And, you know, the fear of another storm is that's going to take it away.

FESSLER: Jacobson says though that she'll leave her trailer behind. She plans to pack her belongings in her Mustang and drive to safety. And if she has to, she'll start over again from scratch.

If there's any silver lining as the next hurricane season approaches, it's that many residents here still have so little left to lose.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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