Drawing on the hard-learned lessons of Hurricane Katrina, Sheriff Marlin Gusman said Wednesday that his office is prepared to evacuate Orleans Parish Prison this year in the case of a hurricane of Category 2 strength or greater.
In the event of a potentially catastrophic storm, the Sheriff’s Office intends to bus inmates to at least three separate state Department of Corrections facilities north of Interstate 10.
The evacuation would be conducted in conjunction with the inmate populations in Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes.
“We have a plan firmly in place, and we’re ready to enact it at the right time,” Gusman said. “Really, no office can properly handle this by itself. We know it’s important for us to work together.”
The plan, Gusman said, is to relocate inmates before the state implements contraflow on interstate highways.
While the Sheriff’s Office hopes to open a new $145 million jail at some point this year, Gusman said availability of that facility won’t change the need to move inmates out of harm’s way.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted a below-average hurricane season for 2015. NOAA released an outlook last month that said there is a 70 percent likelihood that six to 11 named storms will develop, including two major hurricanes. The Atlantic hurricane season began June 1 and ends Nov. 30.
In the event of an evacuation, the Sheriff’s Office would use its mobile, solar-powered command unit as a booking facility. “Even with all of our new buildings, we’re not going to be in a position to say that we can stay here,” Gusman said.
The Sheriff’s Office came under withering criticism after Katrina for its lack of hurricane preparedness. Several deputies acknowledged after the storm that they had not received emergency training and were unaware of any evacuation plan, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union.
As the city flooded, inmates found themselves in fetid, chest-high water as OPP lost power ahead of a tedious evacuation that ultimately took three days. The ACLU reported that inmates went days without food and water — claims that Gusman denied at the time — in an almost unbearable environment.
“Our hurricane plan 10 years ago was to take our inmate population and move it to the Orleans Parish Prison, and we all know how that turned out,” St. Bernard Parish Sheriff James Pohlmann said Wednesday. “We figured out we’ve got to find a better way to do this.”
Gusman said significant improvements have been made in recent years to the Sheriff’s Office evacuation plan. A decade ago, he said, the office lacked a reliable means of documenting which inmates ended up where after the evacuation.
“We’re in a lot better shape” today, he said, noting that inmates now would be tracked with bar-coded armbands. “The biggest thing is that we have a plan.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.