John W. Barnett, Landreneau, Dwight, Van Osdell, Mary Ann | 9/12/2008 1:34:01 AM
Red Cross officials were so impressed by the inaugural operation of the Louisiana Emergency Shelter near Alexandria during Hurricane Gustav they have invited the manager to address chapter and city officials in New York City later this year.
The shelter at the LSU AgCenter’s Dean Lee Research and Extension Center operated during the storm under the direction of Dr. John Barnett, the LSU AgCenter’s central region director.
Located just south of the LSU-Alexandria campus, the $26 million climate-controlled shelter provided a place for citizens seeking refuge from the storm. The 230,000-square-foot facility accommodated 3,027 evacuees, 1,000 response personnel, hundreds of volunteers, 495 ambulances and 75 support vehicles. Half of the evacuees were children.
Randy Lauer, general manager of American Medical Response and EMS incident commander, said this was the largest deployment of ambulances (ground and air) in U.S. history, but he encountered no problems that couldn’t be resolved quickly on site.
Barnett received the keys to the facility on Aug. 15, and while the final inspection had not been completed before Gustav hit, Gov. Bobby Jindal declared the site a shelter.
“It developed overnight because it had to,” Barnett said.
The structure was there, but Barnett said he didn’t even have a broom.
“We feel like this should be memorialized,” said Theresa Bischoff, CEO of the American Red Cross in Greater New York, who was part of a team deployed to Alexandria. “In particular, the LSU AgCenter stepped in and played a critical role.
“There was collaboration and teamwork,” she said. “The AgCenter did anything they could to support the Red Cross. They brought the expertise they had. I personally have never seen anything like this before.”
The state-run shelter is managed by the LSU AgCenter except during an emergency when the Louisiana Department of Social Services is to take control, Barnett said. But Gustav struck before that could happen.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency offered support, and the LSU AgCenter took over management, Barnett said.
Since the building was still a shell, FEMA brought tables and chairs in the 11th hour, and a disaster assistance response team from New York City set up cots, said Mike Mondello, a retired firefighter with the group.
Mondello said that in his 10 years with the response team he has seen smaller groups one-eighth the size involved with the Alexandria shelter, “come nowhere near as close to perfection.”
“At no point did the panic button appear on the radar,” Mondello said. “It was a testament that every hand was pulling on the same rope. Chaos was a second away if there wasn’t a cooperative effort.”
Bischoff and Scott Graham, chief response officer for the Red Cross in Greater New York, witnessed Hurricane Katrina as well as 3,000 disasters in their jurisdiction of 12 million people every year.
“Nobody lost their cool, and everyone stayed focused on the mission,” Graham said. He said he believes what he witnessed should be replicated all over the country as a model for disaster centers.
Graham, Bischoff and other Red Cross volunteers arrived Aug. 30 and set up cots and a cafeteria. Evacuees weren’t expected until late the next day, but 10 buses arrived just before midnight.
Shortly afterwards, the U.S. Public Health Service set up a 250-bed hospital for special needs in 30 minutes. Cmdr. Darren Daly with the health service said they treated diabetics, amputees and patients with feeding tubes.
Among volunteers at the shelter were Eastern Pennsylvania EMS personnel and medics from the Howard County, Md., Department of Fire and Rescue Services.
The Red Cross praised the Lecompte Volunteer Fire Department for bringing equipment to keep 18 inches of rising rainwater from reaching loading dock where food and supplies were stored, and Southern Baptist disaster relief units from Arkansas cooked food in tents.
“We all lived here through this storm, eating the same thing,” Bischoff said. “It was ‘all for one and one for all.’”
The LSU AgCenter information technology department set up communication equipment, and Barnett obtained trash bins and found LSU AgCenter employees to unload trucks and operate forklifts.
Jim Shipp, manager of the facility for the LSU AgCenter, and Benny Swor, LSU AgCenter maintenance repair operator, were instrumental, Barnett said. In all, 17 LSU AgCenter employees worked at the shelter during the period it was open.
Bischoff said Barnett had plenty of opportunities to go home, but he stayed at the facility, sleeping only about two hours a night.
Barnett said he recalls a story that people were calmed and encouraged when he answered one of their questions about where he was going to stay by replying he chose the shelter because it was the safest place to be.
Bischoff briefed the evacuation center population twice a day so there would be no mystery in what to expect.
“There was no fear of the unknown that way,” said Dwight Landreneau, LSU AgCenter associate vice chancellor.
Such personal touches as a meal cooked by a father and daughter, a little bit of humor and engaging with the evacuees helped boost morale, Bischoff said. ”We laughed and joked and kept spirits high,” he said.
High spirits were necessary when the center was confronted by a sewage problem. Some of the pipes were full of concrete, said Barnett, who coordinated with the state health service, architect, contractor and LSU AgCenter facility engineers to correct the trouble.
An emergency system kept the lighting on when the storm hit, but air conditioning and ice machines were out from the afternoon of Sept.1 until the evening of Sept. 3.
“This is an incredible facility and an amazing asset to the community,” said Leann Murphy, CEO of the Cenla Red Cross Chapter. “There is an incredible staff from the LSU AgCenter.”
The facility is adjacent to the 60,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Dean Lee Research-Extension Livestock Facility, and the two are joined by a covered walkway. Pets housed at the livestock facility included dogs, cats, horses and birds.
With the LSU-Alexandria campus now offering four-year degree programs and on-campus housing, the emergency shelter also offers benefits to students and area citizens. When not used as a shelter, the facility will provide a place for graduations, conferences and conventions, Landreneau said.
Writer: Mary Ann Van Osdell at (318) 741-7430, ext. 1104, or firstname.lastname@example.org