With the trials and tribulations of Katrina and Rita still fresh on the minds of parish residents, hurricane season officially arrives today. While St. Charles Parish by and large missed the brunt of two major storms last year, the parish has initiated a series of changes from lessons learned in the last storm season.
"There are several things that we have put in place to improve from last year," said Director of Emergency Operations Tab Troxler. "The biggest changes that (residents) will see will be in communications."
To meet the communication challenges, COX Channel 6, the government access channel, will stream video, allowing displaced residents to get information online as to the state of their community. Residents will find the stream at www.stcharlesgov.net. Now, citizens can get information on flooding, when and how to return and the state of conditions within the parish, such as electricity.
"Not only will we have emergency messages, but (residents) can also stream a video of Channel 6, as if they were in St. Charles Parish," said Troxler. "We will be updating that constantly." This is in stark contrast to hurricanes past, where residents relied on getting information from services not based in the parish, such as WWL in New Orleans.
Troxler said that the parish will release a 1-800 number soon so that parish residents can call to get updates. This will allow those without internet access to obtain vital information about their homes.
Also in the works, the parish is out to bid on an AM radio system, encompassing St. Charles Parish. "This won't help residents while they are outside the parish, but you will be able to access it over the website," said Troxler. While the frequency has not been established, Troxler believes the radio station's strength lies in providing information to residents once they return.
"The radio station will provide very detailed information before they leave the parish, such as turning off their water valves and heaters," said Troxler, adding that the parish will buy 24 road signs -- 12 on each bank of the parish. In cases of emergency, the signs will blink, informing residents to tune into the station to get information.
Incase communications were to fail within the parish, Troxler said a citizen's sideband radio system is to be implemented. "It gives us interoperability; all agencies would be able to communicate if the usual channels went down. If a federal agency comes in, such as the Coast Guard, we would have the means to communicate with them." In the parish, residents can also hear messages through Channel 9 on a regular CB, not the sideband that parish is installing.
Troxler said that all of these plans are being worked in conjunction with the sheriff's office and the fire department.
While communication dilemmas are being addressed, levees are another major concern for the residents of the parish. "For the first time, we are going to have true and full protection of the east bank of St. Charles Parish. Some time during the season, protection will reach 13.5 ft. This will go a long way in protecting lives and property," said Troxler, citing the Army Corps of Engineers and the Pontchartrain Levee Board's plan to repair and raise the east bank hurricane protection levee.
Troxler was quick to add that the increased levee protection on the east bank should not give residents a false sense of security, as there are scenarios and storms that could overtop those raised east bank levees.
Without a completed hurricane levee, the west bank of St. Charles remains the Achilles' heel of the area.
"I urge residents, east and west bank, to heed evacuation warnings," said Troxler. "It is still good for residents to have an evacuation plan. They must accept the fact that evacuations will be necessary."
In addition to levees, Troxler beseeched locals to learn the lessons of flood insurance. "Every single citizen of St. Charles Parish -- regardless of what the bank tells you, regardless of what the federal government tells you or what your insurance company tells you -- needs to have flood insurance. There is no excuse to not have it," adding that it is vital to rebuild storm-ravaged areas. "There is not a single place in the parish that is not vulnerable to hurricane flooding.”