New Orleans-area Officials Pledge Better Evacuation Plans

May 7, 2007

New Orleans’ emergency operations chief promised recently that residents or stranded tourists who need help evacuating in advance of a hurricane will have access to two places where they can find transportation to shelters outside the metro area.

However, he said it was too early to say precisely where the makeshift emergency transportation depots will be.

“We had a meeting today and we feel very, very comfortable that we will have our two parish pickup points, which is what we need to process our people,” Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed said after a hurricane preparedness briefing involving officials from several metro area, state and federal agencies. “We’re still working the plan. We have to make sure the plan fits our needs and that we can process the number of people we have.”

Sneed has estimated that there are as many as 25,000 residents who may need help getting out of New Orleans. The plan is to have them picked up near their homes by city buses and taken to central locations where they can be registered and then taken by bus or train to shelters far outside the path of approaching storms.

The availability of trains, however, has yet to be confirmed.

Sneed said the city is hoping the Federal Emergency Management Agency will finish work on a contract with Amtrak by the time hurricane season begins June 1.

FEMA spokesman David Passey could not say whether a contract with Amtrak would be complete by then.

There was a deal in place last year for Amtrak to bring evacuees to Jackson, Miss., but it was not renewed.

“We are continuing to review that. It remains an option for federal support,” Passey said. “The challenges are the availability of trains and crews … and I think there’s some questions on the destination.”

FEMA does have a contract in place for buses, Passey said.

City officials initially hoped those buses would be able to pick up evacuees at New Orleans’ sprawling convention center, but convention officials resisted, saying in early April that there were other more suitable options.

The convention center is one of the driving forces of the city’s economy. It needed extensive repairs after thousands seeking refuge from Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 floodwaters congregated there.

Emergency officials said it would be an ideal staging ground because it had ample space, air conditioning, bathrooms and provided easy access to Interstate highways.

Sneed declined to say whether convention center officials had since become more amenable to helping with evacuations, while a convention center spokeswoman did not immediately return a message left at her office.

Four parishes in the metro area – Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard – are working closely on evacuation and emergency response planning. Officials from various agencies called that a vast improvement over Hurricane Katrina.

“For the first time ever, you will see a regional fusion center where all four parishes have representatives from their emergency centers sitting in one room,” said Deano Bonano, Jefferson Parish’s emergency operations chief.

Bonano said Jefferson Parish also will be running bus routes into neighborhoods where needy residents live to help them evacuate before an oncoming storm.

This season, Orleans and Jefferson parishes plan to call mandatory evacuations if a Category 3 or stronger hurricane is forecast to hit the area. In lower-lying areas of Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes that are closer to the coast, evacuations could be called for weaker storms, officials said.

Shelters will be set up in the New Orleans area for about 50,000 FEMA trailer residents during smaller hurricanes or tropical storms, Sneed said. However, there will be no shelters of last resort in any of the four parishes during storms at or exceeding Category 3 strength.

“When the mayor tells the citizens of New Orleans to evacuate, the citizens should listen to the mayor and heed his warnings,” Sneed said.

Officials will not force residents to leave their property, but those who stay will be subject to arrest if they venture out in public while emergency orders are in effect and otherwise will have to otherwise fend for themselves. Those who remain also will not be rescued as long as storm conditions pose a danger to emergency responders, officials said.

Meanwhile, officials who oversee drainage in Jefferson and Orleans parishes said they are better prepared for major storms than ever before. In Jefferson Parish, eight safe houses have been built to allow pump operators to not only stay in the area during a storm but also to continue operating automated pumps remotely. During Katrina, pump operators evacuated and pumps stopped working for hours, causing numerous homes and business to flood briefly from rain water.

In Orleans Parish, 19 of 23 pumps are fully automated, Orleans Parish Sewerage and Water Board executive director Marcia St. Martin said. She added that backup power supplies have been improved.

Corps of Engineers New Orleans District chief Chris Accardo said his agency has improved emergency communications equipment and also has arranged for employees and equipment to stay in safe areas closer to New Orleans so they can respond more quickly to levees that may need emergency repairs.

“We’re pretty confident we’re not going to have some of the problems we had last time,” Accardo said.

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