Most people in south Louisiana felt they dodged a bullet during Hurricane Barry, but Baker officials used the time to test a developing Emergency Operations Center by running through strategies designed to protect lives and property in the city.
The Friday before landfall, Baker Mayor Darnell Waites worked behind the wheel of his truck and his desk with his eyes on the streets, reassuring residents that steps were in place for their safety.
One of the biggest developments is a fully functional Baker EOC headed by Baker Fire Chief Chris Hunt. The EOC offers help during emergencies, but Hunt has also been tasked with spearheading those services crucial to planning before emergencies strike.
The mayor referenced a “Big Book” that tracks city emergencies and protocols. It has records from the year 2000, but Waites cautions there’s a need to quickly evolve and adapt. “As we are going through, we make mistakes and we write it down,” Waites said.
Waites has learned that emergency spending that follows best practices will be eligible for reimbursement if a FEMA-assisted disaster is later declared. In the 2016 flood, the city was able to recoup 90 percent of the money spent before FEMA moved in to assist flood victims in the area. “We know what we are doing, but our biggest issue is communication,” he said. “People communicating, department leaders communicating and everyone getting back to Chris (Hunt) and Chris laying out to me so I can make decisions about evacuations and other needed actions. “
Each emergency helps to paint a picture of the needs of the community. The City of Baker has compiled a database of the seniors of the area in private homes so they can plan to respond with assistance even before help is requested. “Everything going on with us is a training situation,” Waites said. “We are building our plan right now for how we want to do business in the next 10 years.”
“I’m military,” Waites said. “I’m always looking at the next battle; always looking at the theater and where we are.”
Working with faith-based and community groups is part of Baker’s plan. Before the tropical storm became an immediate threat, the city worked with a local church to open a temporary shelter at Redemption Life Fellowship on Debra Drive that could be in place long before a Red Cross shelter would be authorized to provide services.
Waites said the church was chosen because the location is high with a good flood track record and its pastor, the Rev. Larry Alexandria, has demonstrated a strong desire to help the community and he “never says no.”
Advanced planning has helped move Hunt from reactive (fire response) to proactive (disaster preparation), but he notes that Baker emergency protocols are a process in the making. The city’s agencies are using recent events to map strategies and communicate with residents.
Hunt said the storm had minor impact on the area, but it was a dress rehearsal for the Baker EOC. A few years ago, the city started its own emergency operations center so the residents of Baker could have needs met locally. The EOC provides information solely about Baker, including road closures, downed tree warnings and sandbag availability.
“Ahead of storms, the city now makes plans to close the trouble spots that include McHugh and Groom roads,” Hunt said. “We often take calls to rescue people out of vehicles so one of our major plans was to have a prehurricane meeting prior to the opening of the EOC to discuss what would be put in place and one of those things was the closing of Groom Road.”
The chief urges individual preparation and a brief “1-2-3 checklist” before a storm hits:
- When storms are approaching, prepare at home. Make sure to have supplies like batteries, radios and nonperishable food items.
- Go over your own evacuation plan. If you had to leave your house, where would you go?
- When the storm arrives, stay off the roads and be mindful of neighbors, such as seniors, who might need help.
When a storm is approaching and during emergencies, residents may go online to the parish’s Red Stick Ready site for sandbag locations. They may also reach the Baker EOC at (800) 553-5933.