Emergency officials and the Lafayette Parish School System are staging buses across the parish to assist residents in Lafayette and neighboring parishes in case of evacuations.
Bill Oliver, district engineer administrator for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, said DOTD has activated its vehicle staging areas near the Lafayette Regional Airport and at the intersection of U.S. 90 and Ambassador Caffery Parkway across from Zoosiana.
A state of emergency has been declared for Lafayette Parish in advance of predicted severe weather from Tropical Storm Barry.
It’s the first time DOTD has activated its emergency staging area in Lafayette since Oliver assumed his district position seven years ago, he said.
The agency has 60 school buses at the airport staging site and 80 coach buses and 35 paratransit vehicles being delivered Friday to the staging site near the zoo. Thirty of the school buses are from St. Landry Parish, Oliver said.
The mix of vehicles is important because the community’s storm aftermath needs are hard to predict. The coach buses can hold more people and can move people to emergency locations in farther cities like Alexandria and Shreveport, he said.
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Oliver said the Louisiana National Guard will be supplying drivers for the buses as needed. The buses will serve the eight parishes in his district — Acadia, Evangeline, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary and Vermilion — but will be deployed wherever they’re needed, depending on which areas are hit hardest once the storm makes landfall, he said.
DOTD is also coordinating with other agencies to help where they can, he said.
“We’re providing what we know to assist other agencies in what they do to get the job performed,” Oliver said. “Any one agency can’t handle all of the necessary aspects of storm response. You want to make sure everything is coordinated.”
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The district director said he’s coordinated with the Department of Health and Hospitals to have disabled and medically compromised residents and others who require paratransit transport to the Heymann Center, where a facility for critical needs people will be set up, Oliver said.
They’re also preparing signage and coordinating traffic plans for designated D-SNAP, or disaster supplemental nutrition assistance program, sign-up locations around the region, he said.
Oliver said his team is also preparing to clear roadways after the storm. He said roughly 200 team members are staged across his eight-parish district and are ready with equipment and pumps to clear downed trees and pump water off flooded roadways.
He said quick response is “extremely important” to ensure utility workers, the National Guard and other emergency responders can get into storm-hit areas to restore power, provide medical care or evacuation help, and get food and water to residents in the aftermath.
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The Lafayette Parish School System is also stepping in to help emergency efforts, chief administrative officer Jennifer Gardner said.
The school system has staged 19 buses around the parish and handed over the keys to local police departments and the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office so they can be used as needed.
Four buses are located in Scott across from the Scott Police Department, four are at Ernest Gallet Elementary in Youngsville, four are at the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office training center on West Willow Street, two are at Broussard Middle, four are at the Carencro Community Center and one is at the Judice Fire Station, Gardner said.
The district is also offering the cafeteria at Ernest Gallet Elementary and the gymnasium at Carencro High School as staging areas in case people need to be evacuated and transported to higher ground and emergency shelters, she said.
Gardner said the district has a responsibility as a community stakeholder to step up and do their part.
“We service 30,000 of these children. If people get displaced those are our students, those are our families,” Gardner said.
The idea to proactively stage the school buses came forward at an emergency planning session with municipal leaders and law enforcement Wednesday, and by 1 p.m. Thursday the buses were in place. By 4:30 p.m., the school system had turned over the keys, she said.
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While being proactive with the buses and staging areas, the school system is also responding to real-time requests from local and state agencies, Gardner said.
The National Guard will house 130 soldiers at Paul Breaux Middle School for the duration of the storm and response. The soldiers will have cots set up in the gymnasium, use the cafeteria for meals and have shower stations set up at the campus, she said. They’re expected to arrive Friday.
“We’re just glad to be able to help and give back and to do our part. It’s so cliché to say it takes a village, but it really does,” Gardner said.