St. Charles Herald-Guide

Emergency rations of water, ice were not needed, officials say

By Kyle Barnett - September 7, 2012

In the run up to Hurricane Isaac, St. Charles Parish was the first parish in the state to call for a mandatory evacuation and issue a state of emergency.

The parish evacuated 311 residents and more than 100 disabled and special needs residents for the duration of the storm, but unlike surrounding parishes that were affected by the hurricane, St. Charles Parish did not ask for the National Guard to set up distribution points for ice, food, and water†as well as†other goods. The hurricane caused 82 percent of the parishís electric customers to lose power–some for over a week. In addition, 464 recorded instances of property damage were reported in the parish.

Despite the power outages and damages, Parish President V.J. St. Pierre said he did not think emergency assistance was needed.

"We are getting hammered because we didnít open up a distribution center," St. Pierre said. "The reason why we didnít do it is because at the time we could have initiated that POD-thatís what they call them is a POD-it was the day after the storm and Entergy had already cruised through here starting to get power to the companies."

St. Pierre said most of the parishís grocery stores had their power restored and were open for business the day after the storm.

"We never lost water in the parish. Now you are down to two commodities-ice and food and it was available to them. If they had the resources to drive to a POD station they could just go to a regular store," St. Pierre said. "Instead of waiting in line two to six hours to get ice and water and MREs, they could go to Winn-Dixie and wait in line for a half an hour and get this stuff."

Numerous residents complained on both the Herald-Guide and the parishís Facebook pages that they did not receive assistance after the storm and that ice quickly ran out at the parishís grocery stores. Some even said they visited POD centers at surrounding parishes.

Emergency operations director Scott Whelchel said the parish could have set up a POD to distribute water, ice and MREs, but the parish thought people would be better served getting supplies like they normally do.

"When we rode down Highway 90 we saw that Poppa Johns Pizza was delivering and you could go into Winn-Dixie and they had ice. We didnít want to compete with the private sector," Whelchel said. "The most efficient way for people to get commodities is the way they do it every day because there is usually a place in your neighborhood that is willing to sell you something. Versus trying to pull the entire parish need into one location at the West Bank Bridge Park."

Whelchel said looking back on 2008ís Hurricane Gustav, where there was far less damage in the parish, was also a factor in not opening a POD.

"(During Gustav) we opened up a POD and it closed in two hours because it was out of commodities and it took a whole other day before we could open it again," Whelchel said.

St. Pierre said not wanting to take resources away from more severely damaged parishes factored into the decision to not open the POD.

"We looked at the devastation right next door to us in St. John Parish, down in Lafitte, down in Grand Isle. Those people really needed it. We didnít have that devastation those people have," St. Pierre said. "We are going to take some heat for that, but I think we made the right decision."

Instead of offering public assistance, the parish relied on non-profit groups to help them address the needs of parish residents.

"We have a lot of people in the parish that needed some help and I think we addressed it pretty well. Red Cross came in and kind of took control, United Way, actually when we called in we had people go out there and assess whether they had need or not," St. Pierre said. "So we wanted to make sure that the people that were really in need was getting it and they got it."

Whelchel said they did have some cases where people were in need of emergency assistance and they handled them on a case-by-case basis.

"The special needs on the back side of the storm are the people that are disabled. So these are people who chose to stay and they do have complications and they are without power for awhile and they are starting to degrade," Whelchel said. "They call the EOC and we hooked them up our Community Services Department."

Whelchel said for future storms the parish is going to look towards building a coalition of non-profit groups to assist the parish in recovery efforts.

"We want to band together these outlets. Churches, charitable organizations and I think our Community Services Department we have here in the parish could potentially lead the effort and facilitate getting all of these groups together and formalize the structure behind the process," Whelchel said.

Whelchel anticipates the coalition to be in place before the next storm strikes.

Although parish officials did not ask for emergency assistance, they did ask that the parish be included in FEMAís individual and public assistance programs - something they were denied at first.

St. Pierre said when he saw a map that showed all of the parishes surrounding St. Charles were to be included in individual and public assistance programs and St. Charles would not, he started the drive for its inclusion.

"The rumor is that I told FEMA I donít want all that kind of stuff. Thatís absurd. If our people qualify for that they certainly should get it and we are going to do everything we can to help them get it," St. Pierre said. "As soon as we heard we were not qualified I called the governor. I called all of our congressional leaders."

The parish was granted recovery assistance by FEMA on Tuesday.

Parish residents are now eligible for the individual assistance program, which may provide those affected by the hurricane with temporary housing assistance, temporary food stamps, low-interest loans, cash grants, tax refunds, unemployment benefits as well as other benefits.

The parish also qualified for assistance under the public assistance program and may be eligible for federal disaster grants for emergency protective measures, debris removal and repair, and replacement or restoration of disaster-damaged property. In addition, FEMA may provide some reimbursement for non-profit groups and charitable organizations that assisted during storm recovery efforts.

To apply for individual assistance parish residents can call FEMA at (800) 621-3362 or register online a www.disasterassistance.gov.