GONZALES — At least since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center has played some of kind of sheltering, staging or storage role in the various disasters that have hit the state over the past 15 years, be they hurricane, chemical plant explosion or the BP oil spill.

But, the Ascension Parish government-owned complex stepped into a new job last month after Hurricane Laura smashed into the southwestern coast of Louisiana.

Two 30,000-square foot buildings inside the 265-acre facility near Gonzales are home to about 50 medically vulnerable people who have no place else to go since the Lake Charles region was smashed by wind and flood and, in many places, remains without power or potable water, medical officials said.

These aren't patients from Lake Charles-area hospitals damaged by the Laura. They are people who live at home but are medically fragile for some reason, perhaps because of poor mobility, the need for oxygen or dialysis, or have other health concerns. 

"It pretty much runs your gamut of chronic illness," said Dr. Chris Trevino, a Gonzales emergency medicine physician and incident commander at Lamar-Dixon who is a seasoned hand at running these shelters. "It's just that these folks require more help than most."

In the recent past, these people would have been routed to a medical special needs shelter that is part of the state's 200,000-square-foot "mega shelter" in Alexandria.

Dr. David Holcombe, the state Department of Health Region 6 administrator and medical director, called the wing in that shelter set aside for medical special needs the premier facility for the purpose in the state.

Run by the Office of Public Health, the shelter was stood up for Hurricane Laura but Laura was a Category 2 storm when it passed Alexandria and caused widespread power and water outages.

After two or three days, the shelter's $1 million generator began to overheat and needed a 24-hour shutdown for repairs during a time when there was still no regular electrical power, Holcombe said.

"So they just moved that whole operation, lock, stock and barrel, to Lamar-Dixon," he said.

During a recent interview, medical officials running the shelter at Lamar-Dixon would not allow access to the buildings in use and required reporters to stand roughly 100 yards from them. They said the limits were due to both medical privacy concerns and to prevent any risk of infection from the novel coronavirus for the shelter's residents.

Quick tests for the novel coronavirus are being used to control infection risk.  

But they described the space inside the two buildings in use, the center's Gym and Trademart, as having small partitioned areas where people have their own space akin to a nursing home. All of the Gym and about half of the Trademart are used to hold residents. 

The buildings have showers and bathrooms, and Lamar-Dixon has its own commissary building from which the shelter's residents are fed each day.

About 250 medical staff, both from the Office of Public Health and from state medical contractor BCFS, are running the site. BCFS also staffed an emergency hospital at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans during an early phase of coronavirus pandemic, a state health department spokesman said. 

More than two weeks into the sheltering operation at Lamar-Dixon, the number of people staying at the shelter has dropped from a peak of around 80 to 90 people to around 20 as of Monday. Those figures are a running net tally, as some people leave the shelter and others arrive at the shelter on a regular basis, Trevino explained.

Trevino, who is also the chief medical officer and administrator for the Our Lady of the Lake hospital in Gonzales, said the shelter tries to find people a more permanent place to stay, whether it is with family, a nursing home or some other location until people can go back home.

"So we're the stopgap before we can find them a good place to go," Trevino said. "Some of them will end up in a nursing home and most of this is temporary until the power comes back to where they're going."

In an interview Monday, Trevino said shelter officials were hoping to find more permanent places to stay for the remaining residents at Lamar-Dixon as the number of new residents arriving from the Lake Charles area has slowed considerably.

He added that shelter officials were prepared for the possibility of more people needing help after Tropical Storm Sally, but the storm, once aiming for the New Orleans area and Lake Maurepas over the weekend, had shifted Monday to a Tuesday landfall somewhere between Louisiana and Mississippi. The potent storm is expected then to head inland through the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Wednesday morning, sparing Louisiana of much of the wind and rain.

Trevino said the shelter will be ready no matter what happens.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

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