New Orleans Area Practices for Next Hurricane
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Louisiana has hardly begun recovering from the last hurricane season and now state and local officials have to practice for the next one. Recent exercises in New Orleans and Baton Rouge were designed to avoid repeating some of the nightmares of Katrina.
Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.
CHERYL CORLEY reporting:
This was Louisiana's hurricane dress rehearsal. And in New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin and other officials set the stage. Day one began as mock Hurricane Alicia, a Category Three storm, headed towards the greater New Orleans area, following a path similar to last year's very real Hurricane Katrina. Mayor Nagin said the fake storm would make landfall in 42 hours.
Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans, Louisiana): And we are in high alert as it relates to this storm.
CORLEY: Under the city's plan, its evacuation process would already be taking place. And the convention center, the scene of chaos and suffering last year, would be used not as a shelter, but as a registration and transfer point.
Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, thank you. May I have your first name?
Unidentified Woman #2: Brenda.
Unidentified Woman #1: B-R-E-N-D-A?
Unidentified Woman #2: B-R-E-N-D-A.
Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you. May I have your date of birth?
CORLEY: Volunteers, acting as if they were evacuees needing help to leave the city, lined up to give information to a clerk who typed the details into a laptop.
Unidentified Woman #3: My leg is hurting and I need a wheelchair.
CORLEY: The volunteers received I.D. bracelets, and were sent to line up for buses that would take them to shelters outside of the city. New Orleans continues to negotiate with Amtrak to also use trains for evacuations.
(Soundbite of a beep)
CORLEY: At the front of the line, Victoria Pitt(ph), one of the workers greeting the evacuees, held a small wireless device, which she passed over the barcodes on the I.D. bracelets.
Ms. VICTORIA PITT: What I'm doing right is I'm scanning to see if people have been entered into the registration. So we scan them now, to make sure that they're getting on the buses that they need to go on. And we have a roster then, of who's on what bus going where.
CORLEY: Last year, more than a million people evacuated from the New Orleans area on their own. During the drill, fewer than 100 people participated. Even so, officials hope the exercise helps prevents the mass confusion that occurred during Katrina, when hundreds of evacuees became separated from family members.
Evangeline Andree Darby(ph), a state employee who works at emergency shelters, offered a cautious assessment.
Ms. EVANGELINE ANDREE DARBY: I've been working this emergency preparedness every year. And compared to last year, there is some organization this time. How will it go off, it's going to - we'll know. We'll see.
CORLEY: During the second day, officials met behind closed doors to test their ability to respond, after the fake hurricane made landfall and the communication system was impaired. New Orleans Homeland Security Chief Terry Ebbert says if the city must grapple with a real storm, he's confident the evacuation plan will move people out of harm's way.
Mr. TERRY EBBERT (Director, New Orleans Office of Homeland Security): Will that storm, if those levees fail, impact the city? Absolutely. But will people die if they participate in our plan? And the answer is no. They'll be in a shelter somewhere in Louisiana being taken care of.
CORLEY: Ebbert says there are only minor problems with the drill. A much bigger glitch occurred during the exercise, scheduled to take place at a large FEMA trailer park near Baton Rouge, home to about 1600 displaced people. Local officials cancelled the drill. JoAnne Moreau, the Homeland Security Chief for the area, said FEMA had limited access to the park, and not provided them with an evacuation plan. Moreau said yesterday afternoon, FEMA agreed to help create a plan.
Ms. JOANNE MOREAU (Chief Administrator, Baton Rouge Office of Homeland Security): We want to make sure that these individuals, or these folks that live out there, are not double victimized. They're already impacted. And there's been an enormous amount of trauma that's as a result of being uprooted from New Orleans. And we're trying to do our best to make sure that we can get them to a safe haven as quickly as possible.
CORLEY: Finding safe havens is still a problem for Louisiana. The shelter capacity has increased, but only enough to provide temporary housing for about 65,000 people. It's a problem officials say they will race to resolve. The hurricane season begins June 1st.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, New Orleans.
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