Issues persist post disaster in Southwest Louisiana, emergency officials say
They tell a House panel that housing, lack of communication still need to be address
Blue tarps abound after Hurricane Delta in this aerial photo taken above Lake Charles on Oct. 10, 2020 (Pool photograph by Bill Feig/The Advocate)
A string of major hurricanes and other severe weather events over the past year have revealed gaps in Louisiana’s emergency and response planning, according to local officials from the southwest corner of the state.
Emergency preparedness directors from Calcasieu, Beauregard, Acadia and Vermilion parishes had strong praise for their statewide peers in the governor’s office during Thursday’s meeting of the state House Select Committee on Homeland Security. They also offered constructive criticism based on their experience through hurricanes Laura, Delta and most recently Ida.
Dick Gremillion, Calcasieu’s emergency preparedness director for decades, said the parish was still reeling from the 2020 storms when it went through a winter ice storm and flooding rains in May 2021.
“That’s really a career’s worth of work in a one-year period,” Gremillion said.
A lingering post-disaster issue for Calcasieu is housing, he said, acknowledging his office has limited capacity to address it. Some 13,000 people from the parish were forced into hotels after Hurricane Laura destroyed their homes. While state agencies helped place them in hotel rooms, Gremillion said there is nowhere near enough temporary housing for those who want to rebuild.
“Even if a quarter of those don’t have housing when they get back, that’s a problem,” he said.
Rep. Troy Romero, R-Jennings, said he has suggested to Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser that state parks provide a place for “permanent infrastructure” to support temporary housing after a natural disaster.
Romero also said better lines of communication are needed with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe. In Jefferson Davis Parish, which he represents, there isn’t a full-time emergency official. Local officials should be able to communicate their needs directly to the governor’s office, rather than bombard the sheriff or parish administrators who are stretched thin.
“We’re there. We see it. We know what’s going on,” Romero said.
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In Acadia Parish just to the east, President Chance Henry said property owners were spared the worst from the 2020 hurricanes. But just a few weeks after Laura, the mosquito population exploded and took a toll on animals. More than 400 animal deaths were recorded within a 36-hour period, Henry said.
When he and Ashley LeBlanc, parish emergency preparedness director, contacted the state for assistance, Henry said they were told the state wasn’t authorizing aerial mosquito control at the time. Acadia Parish eventually paid for its own flights, but Henry said they have yet to be reimbursed the $1.7 million cost.
LeBlanc, who was hired in March 2020 not long after Henry took office, said the state should create an informational guide for new emergency preparedness directors to let them know what resources are available and who to contact at the governor’s office to obtain them. Committee members said GOHSEP holds regular training sessions for emergency officials, although Rep. Tim Lerner, R-Lafitte, said lists like the one LeBlanc requested should be updated daily following an emergency.
Rep. Ryan Bourriaque, R-Abbeville, spoke to the committee on behalf of Cameron Parish emergency preparedness director Danny Lavergne, who he had a schedule conflict. His House district includes Cameron and parts of Vermilion and Calcasieu.
Nearly 15 months after Hurricane Delta, Bourriaque said the lower portion of Cameron still relies on temporary power.
One area of improvement he suggested was more “pre-disaster preparation.” For example, he credited local officials with lining up contracts before hurricane season for debris collection, fuel and generators. Before storms strike, Bourriaque said the state should assist parishes with obtaining clearance from the Department of Environmental Quality for sites where storm debris can be hauled.
“When you take the time and effort to procure and have all this in place, I think it’s incumbent on us at a state level to be ready to act,” Bourriaque said. “We have to honor their work by moving on actions … that they’ve taken the time to do ahead of time.
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