RITA: FIVE YEARS LATER: Laying down the law

September 23, 2010 at 7:53 pm

*published Sept. 23, 2010
Response shaped by Katrina lessons

Homeowners in Cameron Parish and lower Calcasieu Parish rebuilding after Hurricane Rita have to construct their homes to withstand at least 130 mph winds under legislation signed into law by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco in December 2005. BY BRAD PUCKETT

In the lead-up to Hurricane Rita, area law enforcement officials were tasked with managing the evacuation of Southwest Louisiana and parts of Southeast Texas. In the aftermath, they faced numerous obstacles, including blackouts in some cities and roads littered with nails, live power lines and trees.

Officers and shift supervisors talked to the American Press about some of the challenges they faced during and after the storm and what they’ve learned since.

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, “We had lots of New Orleans evacuees in the Civic Center. Me and some of my guys had been in the New Orleans area for almost a week,” said Lake Charles Police Chief Don Dixon said.

He and Calcasieu Sheriff Tony Mancuso had been working in St. Bernard Parish when they got word to come back.

“The mayor (Randy Roach) called and said the Civic Center is full. The motels are full. We need everybody back,” Dixon said.

“What I saw in New Orleans could only be described as catastrophic. Rita was looking bad, too, and you couldn’t help but wonder if we were about to get the same thing.”

The first task was organizing evacuees in the Civic Center. They were checked for warrants and sex offender registration and were given writstbands.

“We had to move about 600 people to Burton Coliseum, and the Sheriff’s Office took over there,” Dixon said.

In the next 24 hours, schools were closed and evacuees had to be moved to shelters farther north, he said.

On Thursday, Sept. 22, Mancuso had deputies begin to evacuate more than 1,200 inmates in Calcasieu and Cameron parishes.

“This was one of the areas where, as prepared as we thought we were, there were things we didn’t foresee,” Mancuso said.

Prisoners were moved north via school buses, which Mancuso said wasn’t a secure way to transport them. Officers didn’t have enough handcuffs and leg shackles, leaving them to use plastic flexcuffs on many prisoners.

Also, the state prison system was already overburdened because of inmates evacuated in and around the New Orleans area.

In Cameron Parish, Sheriff Theos Duhon got help from state troopers and wildlife agents to evacuate the parish’s 9,000 residents.

“Then we were getting supplies together, making sure all my employees knew where to go up north,” Duhon said.

He said almost 100 percent of the parish evacuated — a saving grace.

*sidebar: Contraflow as a last resort

Mad scramble
As Rita continued to track toward Southwest Louisiana, officials said they remembered the events two weeks earlier in New Orleans.

In the 20 hours before Rita made landfall, law enforcement officials scrambled to fill any gaps in supplies or communication that may be caused by the storm.

“It’s a shame to say, but we learned a lot from being in New Orleans,” said Lake Charles police Sgt. Shawn Caldwell.

“If we had got the first big storm, I’m sure things would have been different,” said Calcasieu Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. James McGee.

“Access to fuel was the biggest problem I saw, so we knew that had to be a focus,” Caldwell said.

He brought in a large portable gas tank he owned, and called a fellow officer whose parents owned a gas station.

“We worked out an unofficial deal where they gave us access to their fuel supply,” Caldwell said. At first officers had to drive back and forth to Lacassine, then the family eventually gave the department their fuel transportation truck.

Dixon said he split the force in two, sending half to Coushatta Casino Resort in Allen Parish and the other half to camp in the parking garage at Christus St. Patrick Hospital.

Both Mancuso and Dixon then made personal overtures to law enforcement friends in other states — Dixon calling on colleagues from his days with the FBI and Mancuso calling the national sheriff’s association.

Mancuso staged more than 200 deputies at various schools in Moss Bluff, Sulphur, DeQuincy and Vinton.

Parish officials then hunkered down at the Sheriff’s Office on Broad St. around 5 .m. Friday Sept. 23.
Communication down

Rita made landfall at 2:40 a.m. Saturday on the Louisiana-Texas border just west of Johnson Bayou.

“It was a crazy night,” Mancuso recalled. “Early Saturday, with winds probably around 70 mph, I had to send deputies out into the storm.”

The Calcasieu Correctional Center’s surrounding fence was covered with a tarp. With the powerful winds, deputies had to cut it loose or the entire fence would have been ripped out of the ground, Mancuso said.

Around 5:30 a.m. Saturday morning, officials lost contact with their officers.

“We were without communication for about six hours that morning,” said Cmdr. Matt Vezinot. “We had in the plan, a group of people who would be runners if we had no communication at all.”

Deputies were able to switch broadcasts between different city systems, but runners were still needed in the rural areas of the parish, Vezinot said.

Dixon said the city radio system was intact and he called in officers from Allen Parish and St. Patrick Hospital.

Clearing roadways
Officers in Allen Parish “needed help from firefighters and had to cut their way down (U.S.) 165” to get back to Lake Charles, Dixon said.

“The wind was still blowing pretty hard, debris was everywhere. We had to zig-zag our way back to the station,” said Caldwell, who was stationed at the hospital at the time.

A common problem for both agencies: flat tires.

“The wind did the most damage for us,” Dixon said. “The roads were littered with nails, and I think we had almost 100 cars with flat tires over the first couple of days.”

Public safety and national guard crews came in to help clear the main roadways and outside help began arriving.

Teams came from Tennessee, California, Ohio, Alabama and Arizona, bringing manpower and equipment to help lock down the parish.

Agents came from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives brought helicopters with spotlights and supplied night-vision goggles.

Less than 24 hours into the aftermath, officials from Entergy said the entire electrical grid was destroyed and it would take about 30 days to get electricity in the area.

“At that point, we had to get a curfew in place. There would be some serious issues at night,” Mancuso said.

Parishwide curfews
Farther south, about half of Cameron Parish was underwater.

“We got to fly over the whole area on Sunday, and I remember hitting Hackberry and it was solid water all the way to the Gulf,” Dixon said.

Duhon said it took about a week and a half before deputies could go into the parish by car.

“We made it down there by boat and were constantly trying to keep people from coming in on their boats,” Duhon said. “Cameron Emergency Preparedness and the state didn’t want people down there because of damaged gas lines and general public health, but everyone really wanted to jump back in.”

“You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face (on night patrols),” said Lake Charles Cpl. Ben Randolph. Officers rode in two-man units, with some patrol and SWAT officers on foot combating looters.

Other officers served as static security at pharmacies and stores that sold weapons.

Tuscaloosa, Ala., county brought in a plane with an infrared imaging system.

“What we would do is have officers on the ground in areas where we had reports of looting,” Dixon said.

The plane would fly over an area, and anywhere body heat was projected, the pilot would send the coordinates to officers on the ground.

With strict enforcement of a sundown curfew, Mancuso said a message was quickly sent through out the parish.

Sheltering in place
Living conditions for officers varied. Mancuso and Dixon stayed in their respective buildings.

“At the time, our generators only powered a few lights in the building. It was brutally hot inside and outside,” Dixon said.

Calcasieu deputies were required to stay at a set school or building in their patrol area.

“We didn’t want anyone going to an unsafe place, said Calcasieu Cmdr. James McGee. “We were the ones who required them to stay so they were our responsibility.”

“My first task every shift was making sure everyone was healthy,” said Caldwell. “It was a stressful time. You weren’t sleeping well. You know your people, so you talk to them and weigh the problem.”

Each agency had a team of officers who went around checking and securing each other’s houses.

“That made a big difference,” Dixon said. “I think at least half of my officers had some major structural damage. It helped for them to know that they were being taken care of.”

Members of the community and local restaurant owners fed officers for almost three weeks.

“Believe it or not, we didn’t have anyone get upset or quit,” Duhon said.

Cameron deputies were able to get hotel rooms in Sulphur and stay in rental houses in southern Calcasieu Parish.

“I’ve never been through any storm this bad. I was in south Lake Charles when Audrey hit (in 1957) and I never anticipated that things would get this bad,” Duhon said. “It was quite a task but we learned. My crew here, when Ike hit, they were ready and we had everything we needed.”

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