Mildred Webster is staying in a shelter at Southern University ahead of Hurricane Ida hitting Baton Rouge. (Photo by JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)
Mildred Webster, a Baton Rouge native, tried to evacuate too late when the city flooded in 2016.
She and her family were “just a couple blocks away” from their house when their SUV was caught in the water and Webster’s family had to leave the vehicle behind and “wade through all that water.”
“We had to climb up on railroad tracks and walk down to safety,” Webster said. “So that’s why I didn’t want to take a chance and wait til it was too late to evacuate.”
Webster and her son, Darren — along with dozens of other Louisiana residents — moved to an evacuation center in Southern University’s mini-dome Sunday. It can house up to 275 people.
On Sunday afternoon, Louisiana was only using a fraction of its public hurricane shelter space. The 23 shelters opened have a capacity to hold 10,300 people — but only 1,400 people were housed in them so far.
That’s expected to change as soon as Monday. As Hurricane Ida passes and people assess the damage to their homes, more of them will be turning to the shelters for relief. Gov. John Bel Edwards said the plan is to open more shelters once the worst of the storm is over.
“I imagine as it gets going, they’re going to be coming in,” said Annette Grinnis, facilities supervisor for the American Red Cross at Southern’s mini-dome. “Some people go, ‘oh, I’m going to be fine.’ then at the last minute, they’re on the roof with a white flag because they got flooded out.”
Louisiana will have 185 buses stationed in the southeastern portion of the state — mostly around New Orleans — to take people to shelters in central and northern Louisiana on Monday, where the buses are located will depend on which parts of Louisiana suffer the most damage, Edwards said.
The public shelters are operating at a reduced capacity to limit the spread of COVID-19. The spaces will be cleaned more often than normal and masks will be mandatory. There will be more space than usual between family groups in the shelters.
The governor also said the plan is to move people from the open-air shelters into hotel rooms, where COVID-19 cannot be spread as easily. A similar strategy was used after Hurricane Laura, when thousands of evacuees were put up in hotels primarily in the New Orleans area in order to avoid a spike in COVID-19 cases.
“You want to avoid having people in large, open rooms as much as necessary,” the governor said. “We will use congregate sheltering at first, but only to the degree necessary.”
Grinnis said she hopes Southern University’s mini-dome will only house residents for two nights maximum, and emphasized the center will not be used as a long-term shelter.
“We’ve got enough (food) to feed for now, and hopefully if we need more deliveries, we’ll be able to get them in an emergency,” she said. “The meals aren’t fancy, but it is food.”
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