Want a copy of Terrebonne's storm plan? Good luck

Fordham Law Student George Kottas in Houma Today, January 10, 2009

By Matthew Pleasant
Staff Writer

HOUMA — Getting a look at Terrebonne’s emergency storm plans proved difficult for nonprofit volunteers last week, who say parish officials refused to give them a copy to critique.
The group, the Disaster Accountability Project, aims to improve storm response on the Gulf Coast by reviewing local governments’ hurricane plans.

Earl Eues, the parish’s emergency-preparedness director, said he declined to give the 2008 plan to volunteers because he said it’s inferior and is undergoing a complete overhaul after last year’s storm season revealed its flaws.

Leadership, communication and storm-management snafus led to public criticism of Terrebonne Parish’s response before, during and after hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

The parish plans to have a revised storm plan in place by May, a month before hurricane season begins, Eues said.

“There’s no plan in place right now,” said Eues, who the parish began contracting as its director late last year, after the storms had hit. “We’re not in hurricane season right now, so now is the time to revamp.”

During a two-week period, volunteers reviewed plans of 16 Louisiana parishes and eight counties in Mississippi and got mixed results, officials with the group said Friday.

If they received the plans, volunteers said they checked whether they are easily accessible online, lay out a clear chain of command and include evacuation procedures for the elderly, among other aspects.

“This exercise in requesting disaster plans is just a taste of the ways ordinary citizens can provide oversight of local, state and federal emergency preparedness and response management.” Ben Smilowitz, the project’s founder and executive director, said in releasing the results. “Ultimately, parish and county leaders are doing their constituents a disservice by not providing the most comprehensive, up-to-date and accessible plans.”

Volunteers said they had to file public-information requests for hurricane plans in five parishes, Terrebonne among them.

The volunteers said they fared better in Lafourche.

The group first checked the parish government Web sites to see whether the public could easily find plans online. In Terrebonne, the volunteers found limited information, they said.

Volunteer George Kottas, 26, who attends Fordham Law School in New York City, said he visited the parish’s emergency-preparedness office in person to request the emergency plans.

Kottas said the office staff was cooperative, including Eues, who he spoke to by phone. They refused to hand over the plan because it’s still being revised. The office also declined to give Kottas the 2008 hurricane plan, he said.

“It would make sense to have the old plan on file,” he said. “They were friendly and forthcoming, but at the end of the day, they didn’t have a plan to produce.”

Eues said he considers the 2008 plan “null and void.” He also said it’s minimal in scope and too generalized in its evacuation instructions, rendering it useless as a step-by-step guide.

“If they want to grade me on something I’m not going to institute, that doesn’t make sense,” he said.

The parish is revising the document to have a complete plan for each parish agency, Eues said. Some departments have their own unwritten storm preparations, he said, but they aren’t recorded in the plan.

Volunteers also visited Lafourche’s Web site and found a 138-page guide that appears to have been updated last in 2004.

They requested an updated copy from Chris Boudreaux, the parish’s emergency director, but were unable to speak with him when they visited his office.

A day after their visit, Parish President Charlotte Randolph called the volunteers to discuss the plan and apologized that they were unable to speak with Boudreaux directly, Kottas said.

The next day, Boudreaux contacted the nonprofit volunteers and said revisions have been made to the document since the storms, according to Kottas. Boudreaux also e-mailed them supplemental information about evacuations.

“Their information seems to be there. It’d be nice if it was available more easily,” Kottas said. “If I were a resident, I should be able to go in and meet him.”

Randolph confirmed his account and described the plan as a “living document” that’s been updated each year since 2004.

Among revisions made since last year’s hurricane season is evacuation protocol, she said.

After state buses were delayed during Hurricane Gustav’s evacuations, parish officials used local school buses to transport residents, she said. The procedure is now listed in the parish’s plan.

“When the state didn’t show up, we decided to do it ourselves,” she said. “I wouldn’t call them major revisions. We were very well prepared for the storms.”

For more on the nonprofit group, visit its Web site at disasteraccountability.com. You’ll find a link to the Web site accompanying this story at houmatoday.com.