When Isaac threatened, the Miss-Lou was ready and waiting

Published 12:05 am Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — Everyone from elected officials to residents were prepared for Tropical Storm Isaac when it brought wind and rain to the Miss-Lou.

By Rod Guajardo, Vershal Hogan & Lindsey Shelton

NATCHEZ — It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.

And it was no different when officials and residents began preparing for Tropical Storm Isaac last week, days before its path and severity on the Miss-Lou could be estimated.

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But city, county and parish leaders and residents said they had been through enough natural disasters to know that it’s better to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

And even though there is nothing official on paper that dictates a step-by-step process for both sides of the river, officials say a conjoined master plan for dealing with emergency situations could have long-term benefits.

Keeping the lights on

After Hurricane Rita, Micki and Joe Hartley were out of power for days. That wasn’t an experience they wanted to go through again, so they bought a generator that would be big enough to power their lights, keep their freezers running and provide at least one creature comfort.

“I knew that generator would take care of my coffee pot, so I knew I would be in a good mood,” Micki said.

Since Rita, the Hartleys haven’t had much of a chance to use the generator they bought, but Micki said it was an important part of being prepared when Tropical Storm Isaac inched its way into town last week.

Since it has only gotten a few uses at some outdoor events, the generator hadn’t been fired up in a couple of years, and Micki said Joe spent a good portion of the day cleaning out the fuel line and carburetor to make sure it was running properly.

The storm came through, and the generator wasn’t needed.

That wasn’t the point, though.

“It is better safe than sorry, and the generator was something we knew we had, and it made us feel good just to know it was there if we needed it,” Micki said.

Practice makes perfect

Adams County has a comprehensive emergency plan that has been in place since 2007 and Civil Defense and Emergency Management Director Stan Owens said he saw Isaac as proof that the area has what it needs in case of a major disaster.

“I don’t want to make light of what we are going through right now, but it has been since 2008 since we have really had to do this, and considering that we are all a little rusty on it, everybody performed marvelously,” he said.

That checklist includes touching base with local fuel providers to ensure that emergency response vehicles will have access to fuel if they need it and making sure every involved agency knows its role, Owens said.

“Of course you always do what you have to do whether it is in your plan or not, but that’s the baseline,” he said.

Civil Defense leads the response to a given situation, but Adams County Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said he also believes past events that were much worse helped the county prepare accordingly for Isaac.

“Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav, all of those events basically helped prepare Adams County for future events, including the one we are dealing with currently,” Grennell said. “The lines of communication were open, everybody knew who to call.”

For the Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Office, last year’s record high levels on the Mississippi River were enough to call a meeting of the minds to sit down and make changes to the office’s emergency plan policies.

“We all sat down after the flood last year, and we wrote a manual on everything we would do and everybody’s job and duties in case something like that happened again,” Chief Deputy David Hedrick said. “A lot of that stuff was common knowledge to some people in our office, but we wanted to get something on paper.

“That way everything can just fall into place.”

Everything from establishing a command post on the Natchez bluff to securing a spare building in Natchez for deputies to sleep and shower is listed in the sheriff’s office new policy, Hedrick said.

And though Isaac didn’t require deputies to spend the night in a building across the river, Hedrick said the policy can be adapted for any emergency situation — big or small.

“This time we did all the sandbags for people to keep the rain from getting in people’s houses, and that’s just something the wardens knew to start doing right away,” Hedrick said. “You never know what’s going to happen, so we need to be prepared for pretty much anything that can happen.”

Isaac offers drill

Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said the city was ready to go when Tropical Storm Isaac was headed for the Miss-Lou. He said city crews were put on stand-by and efforts were coordinated through briefings with Owens in preparation for the storm.

Brown said one aspect of hurricane preparedness that was perfected during Isaac, which he said was more like a drill since its wrath was not as bad as initially predicted, was coordination with utility companies. He said the city and utility companies, like Entergy, have communicated well for efforts to keep streets clear and getting power restored.

“In general terms, I think everybody knew which buttons to push for the last three days,” Brown said.

With drainage and flooding issues floating to the surface in Concordia Parish during most heavy rains, Police Jury President Melvin Ferrington said it was essential for his crews to start cleaning ditches and culverts the second they heard about Isaac.

“Our drainage system is a unique thing, because everything goes through one straw before dumping out, and if the water can’t get through, we see some bad flooding,” Ferrington said. “We spent two full days just clearing out all the ditches and culverts, making sure we could handle the amount of rain they were predicting.

“Luckily, we didn’t get that much rain, but you have to make those preparations because you never know.”

Master plan

Following Hurricane Katrina, the area’s non-profit organizations had several meetings to try to form a comprehensive response plan to keep from having duplicate services. Though that plan never fully came to fruition, former Adams County Red Cross Executive Director Angie Brown, who served as the liaison between the Red Cross and the county emergency operations center, said the organizations may have been able to achieve those goals anyway by working together during the good times.

“We didn’t have any issues during Gustav, and it ran really smooth this time,” Angie Brown said. “The reason why things ran so well was because you had these relationships, these partnerships with all of the entities involved. You need to know the players, you need to form if not personal relationships, professional relationships.

“One of the other things that helped things run so smooth in a crisis is that we have all worked together before, so we can all almost tell what the other is thinking.”

City Engineer David Gardner said the engineering department, water works and public works have departmental emergency plans. He said the departments test generators at the water plant and other facilities each week and ensure fuel tanks are always full in the event of an emergency.

Gardner said he believes outlining a hurricane plan involving the city, county and parish would not be too difficult.

“Using the experience we gained during the flood and hurricanes Katrina and Gustav, I think it would be good for us to have a regional plan like that,” Gardner said.

While putting a plan on paper would be beneficial, Hedrick said there is also an unspoken rule about helping others in a time of crisis.

“Like with the prison riot, they called us, and we sent our guys over there without any hesitation,” Hedrick said. “If there is an emergency, there’s just an unspoken rule about helping anyone with whatever you have.

“But it would be nice to have some group plan to know what everyone could do to help in different situations.”

Ferrington said he didn’t recall any talks of a master plan for emergency situations that combined both sides of the river, but also said it could easily be accomplished with the right mindset.

“A master plan is something we are lacking, and it’d just be a matter of getting everyone to sit down and come up with it,” Ferrington said. “It would have to a be Miss-Lou plan because what affects Natchez, Mississippi affects Concordia Parish as well.”