Common Valor 2 – Emergency Authorities 0 After Katrina, lessons not learned

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by Chantal K. Saucier by Chantal K. Saucier

I live in the northern part of Vermilion Parish in Louisiana, about 10 miles south of the city of Lafayette and approximately 30 miles from the Gulf coast. Before hurricane Rita, the southern part of our parish was under a mandatory evacuation order as were all residents in mobile homes and those needing special care. All knew that the biggest problem for Vermilion Parish was not going to be the winds associated with Rita, but rather the storm surge.

While the networks have been saying that Rita was not as destructive as she could have been, here in Vermilion Parish, and in the bordering parish of Cameron, people had never seen anything like this before. Some even claim that Rita was a one-in-a-hundred-years event because of its storm surge. Towns that had never been flooded by a hurricane before were navigable Saturday morning. Saturday night, when the water reached its highest point, three-quarters of Vermilion Parish and just about all of Cameron Parish were part of the Gulf of Mexico.

Unbelievably, some people here claim that Rita even outperformed Audrey, a strong category four hurricane that hit Cameron Parish near Sabine Pass in 1957, killing between 400 and 600 people in Louisiana. Audrey, like Camille in Mississippi, had been the reference here for nearly half a century, until Rita. In 1957, many in Cameron and Vermilion, who had never been through a major hurricane, did not listen to the evacuation warnings that were sent. The storm surge associated with Audrey was estimated at 12 feet while Rita's might have reached 15 feet or more in some areas. In light of this, it is almost a miracle that no deaths have been attributed to Rita in Louisiana (as of 09/29/05) and this is most certainly due to the extensive Katrina coverage of the past few weeks. Who wants to be stuck on a rooftop for days while government officials argue about what to do?

Some, it appears, still didn't think it could happen to them.

Once again, and despite the mandatory evacuation orders, some 1,200 people in our parish had to be rescued Saturday and Sunday. Who knows what it will take to make every one understand that hurricanes are serious stuff and that when they get stuck in rising waters, it cost an enormous amount of money to get them out by helicopters. Besides, didn't the Katrina experience teach us that government is slow to respond, except when it comes to stopping the good Samaritans who would be willing to hop on their boats and help?

Yes, it happened again as with Katrina a month ago.

Saturday morning around 8am, a call was made by local radio and TV stations to all civilians with air or flat-bottom boats to immediately go to the Abbeville Court House in Vermilion. Once there, a bunch of them were told to go home, while others were sent to other locations. Early that afternoon, when it became safe to drive, I decided to head south in my parish to check on the rescues. When I got to a couple of miles from where the water had come up, State Troopers had blocked the road. At that corner, I counted about a dozen boats and at least twice as many boaters, including a group of four or five men from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (DWF).

When I asked one of the boaters to fill me in on what was going on, he told me that no one was allowed on the water by the DWF because the wind was still too strong. True, it was blowing pretty hard out there but it wasn't raining and they did have reports that some people were trapped in the still rising waters. Heck, I weigh 105lbs and I'm a good swimmer. With a boat and a life vest, I would have risked it. But not our DWF people, who are all grown up men and the supposedly experts of our waterways.

The next day, I got in touch with René, a boater who had been dispatched to a different location the day before. He said that when they arrived at the Court House, his group was sent to a grocery store on the south side of Abbeville, near the Vermilion River. Once at the store, they also were told to not go out because of the strong winds. Then, by late morning, DWF agents began allowing boats, one or two at a time, to go check on how rough it was out there, while the others were told to wait in the parking lot. After a while, René said they got tired of waiting: "A group of us just headed for the water leaving the guys from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries high and dry in the parking lot."

In the following hours, and although they say the water was indeed rough, René and his group of friends accomplished several rescues and brought some people back to higher grounds. Frankly, I don’t know what to make of this except that it make the DWF folks look like a bunch of chickens.

In the land of the free and home the brave, one is only free to save the life of a fellow citizen in need if one is brave enough to first defy authority and break the law. Sad. Very sad.

Chantal K. Saucier, Ph.D., [send her mail] writes from South Louisiana.

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