This is the problem presented to emergency responders Wednesday: A hurricane with 120 mph winds spins in the northwest Caribbean and is moving northwest. Forecast models show it heading toward Louisiana with a possible landfall in four days.
The fictitious set of facts was used to find out the level of preparedness at federal, state and nonprofit agencies gathered Wednesday morning at Louisiana National Guard facilities in Carville for an annual hurricane drill. In this instance, even though the landfall for the hurricane remains days away, the wheels are already turning at the state and federal agencies designated to respond to storms.
Seated around a huge map of Louisiana, representatives from each agency and emergency service that needs evacuation plans, shelters, fuel station placement and more, told the group what their role will be as the storm inches closer to shore.
“We literally talk through what we do at each step of a hurricane,” said Chris Guilbeaux, deputy director of preparedness and response at the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “This is really a synchronization drill.”
A storm’s approach is divided into time periods named for how long before it makes landfall. At each trigger hour — starting at four days out from potential landfall — certain tasks need to be done to make sure supplies, personnel and equipment are in place before tropical force winds arrive.
This is the fifth year agencies have met to run through each phase of preparedness to make sure everyone understands their responsibilities, Guilbeaux said.
The responsibilities have changed little in years, but the refresher is important because people in the agencies change and need to be brought up to speed.
“This has got to be synchronized,” he said. “If the State Police don’t have the highways clear, then there’s no point in getting the buses out.”
To help people visualize when and where people and supplies will be moved, a huge map of the state was the centerpiece of the meeting. Spread out on the floor, complete with markers showing bridges, hospitals and shelter locations, each new action by a state or federal agency was displayed on the map.
Three days out from the fictitious storm’s landfall, school bus contacts are called and shelter staff are activated, while the American Red Cross activates its feeding contract, and search and rescue teams start moving into place. The number of agencies and responsibilities are staggering when considering the number of people who need to move out of harm’s way.
Lessons from past storms have gone into developing plans.
“I think Hurricane Katrina was a very important event for both the state and federal agencies,” said Gerard Stolar, federal coordinating officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The lessons learned during that storm have helped form better cooperation and preparation for future storms. It also serves as a constant reminder that federal and state agencies need to work together year-round and not just during an emergency, he said.
The challenge, Stolar said, is that storms rarely fit a nice model where state and federal officials have four full days of warning before landfall. Hurricane Isaac in 2012, for example, was initially going to hit Florida, but the storm took a turn, giving Louisiana only about three days to respond, he said.
As state and federal agencies went over their preparedness plan Wednesday, emergency officials encouraged Louisiana residents to do the same.
Hurricane season officially begins June 1, but the time to go over evacuation plans, hurricane kits and other preparations is now, said Mike Steele, spokesman for GOHSEP.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.