Homeland security looking for ‘safe houses’ in Livingston Parish _lowres


Homeland security officials are looking for some homes in Livingston Parish — specifically, “safe houses” strong enough to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes and floods that first-responders can use during emergencies.

On Thursday, the School Board declined to take action on a proposed partnership, but Livingston Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Director Mark Harrell was prepared for the decision. His office also has reached out to other potential collaborators, and the office is in talks with the city of Walker about building a site in Sidney Hutchinson Park.

Officials want to build sites where ambulances, law enforcement and public works employees can safely muster to get back on the road to respond in a disaster, Harrell said. They will not serve as shelters. The city can use the site in Walker for sporting events or as a meeting hall when it isn’t needed in an emergency.

The parish does not have any safe houses, and Harrell would like to build three or four. The Hutchinson Park site is estimated to cost “just over $4 million,” he said. The city and LOHSEP are still hammering out the details of a deal, but Harrell expects the site will open by the end of 2015.

LOHSEP approached the school system about building sites at a number of schools, including in the Live Oak, Doyle and Springfield districts, said Keith Martin, chairman of the School Board’s Plant and Site Committee. However, the committee only officially took into consideration a proposed site at the school system central office in the town of Livingston when it met Dec. 1. Committee members decided to take no action on the agreement, a judgement unanimously upheld by the School Board on Thursday evening.

The schools were asked to pay 25 percent of the cost of the building, described as approximately the size of a gymnasium. LOHSEP can pay for the other 75 percent using grant money from the federal Department of Homeland Security.

“On the face, it sounds pretty good,” Martin said.

But school leaders learned the cost was only for a shell of a building, and they would have to foot the bill for extras like flooring and parking. To serve as a safe house, the building has to have an open floor plan, so it couldn’t house classrooms. If a school wanted to use the safe house as an athletic facility, it also would have to pony up for items like bleachers.

“It ended up being pretty costly,” Martin said. “It’s not as lucrative as it looks on its face.”

The city of Walker believes the site will be a boon to their community, though.

“There are a lot of advantages for us,” Chief of Operations Fred Raiford said.

He said he didn’t “know how anyone can pass up an opportunity” to pay only 25 percent of the project cost. Donating the land and providing utilities for the safe house would help cover the city’s roughly $1 million expected contribution, Raiford said.

When it isn’t being used in a disaster, Raiford hopes the safe house can be outfitted to host youth basketball and volleyball games. It also can serve as a meeting place. Further down the road, he’s interested in possibly adding a kitchen.

Once completed, the safe house also will give disaster crews a place to stage right in the city. Raiford said nearly every year the community has felt the need for an emergency site.

“To me, (the proposed safe house) certainly does meet the safety needs,” he said.

Harrell said his office is talking to “a few other people” about building safe houses elsewhere in the parish, though he declined to speculate on other projects until plans are firmer.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.