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Backed up on the bayou
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 09/10/2007

Katrina Last week, Americans everywhere paused to remember Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. During the storm and aftermath, while much of the national media focused on the atrocities at the Louisiana Superdome and FEMA’s response to the disaster, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections was in the midst of evacuating more than 7,600 inmates and assisting with civilian evacuations.

Two years later, LDPSC remains at the ready for another hurricane or disaster, even though they are still performing repairs on facilities impacted by Katrina.

“Since Katrina, we’ve had two facilities with significant damage that are still in recovery,” says LDPSC director of facility services Bill Breland.

Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie and Allen Correctional Center in Kinder are 230 miles, or nearly four hours, apart but the centers share the distinction of being the only two facilities left in the state still bearing scars from Katrina.

“Both had significant roof damage, blown down fences, and rooftop equipment without power for several weeks after Katrina, although neither facility was ever evacuated,” Breland explains.

The facilities need rooftop, lighting, and fence repairs to restore them to the way they were before the storm. According to Breland, there is no particular reason why Rayburn and Allen are the only two left, but the recovery operation overall has been slow and difficult.

“It’s an ongoing process,” he adds. “It’s a huge billion and a half dollar project that’s taking place.”

In addition to the ongoing repairs, they had to address how fuel supplies could be impacted by a potential disaster.

“We just purchased two 400-kilowatt generators,” Breland says. “They’re trailer mounted and I can move them anywhere in the state.”

The emergency generators are typically utilized if a storm knocks out power in a facility for an hour or so.

“Once you start burning fuel, a 650-gallon tank at 24 gallons an hour can run out pretty quickly,” Breland explains. “When you’re talking about running them 24 hours a day, you really have to plan on alternate fuel sources.”

Some of those alternate sources may come from city and state fuel supplies.

“We can look to the city of New Orleans for extra aid,” Breland says. “The city of Lake Charles is where most of the fuel supplies for the state are stored, and that is another alternative measure we can consider.”

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, less than 30 days apart from one another, provided an unprecedented strain on the department’s ability to supply backup fuel.

“One of the interesting things we’ve learned about the emergency infrastructure of prisons is that systems built 15 years ago, like generators and sewers, won’t perform as well once you have to run them running on a fifth or sixth day,” says LDPSC director of incident management Eric Sivula.

“After Katrina, on about day ten we started having issues of maintenance and reliability with the emergency generators,” explains Sivula, who was the incident commander during Katrina. “It was not because we hadn’t done annual testing, but when you have equipment that sits for 20 years and is all of a sudden called to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you’re going to run into some problems.”

The fact that the flood waters after Katrina did not recede quickly enough also presented an immense challenge.

“Usually, hurricane waters come in, recede three days later, and you can start your damage control,” Sivula adds. “What happened with Rita and Katrina is the flood waters were not receding. We ended up in a protracted disaster. We had just moved 7,000 inmates after Katrina when Rita struck and we had to figure out where to put three thousand more. In a situation like that, you’ve got to be able to think outside the box.”

Especially when the threat of another hurricane is always on the horizon.

“We have 14 parishes very much at risk for any current emergency,” Sivula says. “The current inmate population is running around 8,400, and we’re prepared to transport and house above and beyond our current capacity.”

Sivula stresses proper communication as the key to being well prepared.

“One of the things we do on an annual basis is have a face to face meeting with those at-risk facilities that we support on a local county level,” Sivula says. “We review with them what their risks are, what their emergency plans are, and what resources they have.”

After Katrina and Rita, Sivula has practically seen it all and has valuable advice for other states that have not experienced emergencies of such a catastrophic level.

“For states that don’t do a lot of emergency preparedness, the great lesson of Katrina is that you better be prepared to support your staff,” he says. “They may end up working for weeks without a day off. Most agencies today have a website that broadcasts critical information to staff and also a centralized phone number to call into. With systems like these, you’ll be far better prepared to handle things you may not be anticipating.”

So as another hurricane season stretches into the fall months, LDPSC remains vigilant and prepared, steadily recovering from the past and looking ahead to the future.

Related Resources:

Improved preparation eliminates hurricane surprises

Disaster information from FEMA


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