“Looks like they were trying to save a little bit of it, but there’s so much of it, there is no way they are going to find a place to keep that much ice.” Roger Johnson, truck driver
GONZALES — State officials are trying to find places to put the most perishable of unused emergency commodities since Hurricane Isaac unleashed its fury across Louisiana: Tons of ice held in refrigerated 18-wheelers awaiting delivery.
While Meals Ready to Eat, bottled water and some other unneeded emergency commodities are being put back in storage, officials with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said they have been coordinating an effort to donate or find uses for the leftover ice, about a three-day supply.
But some of that ice also is being allowed to melt inside the 18,000-acre Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, say two truck drivers who delivered ice there Wednesday.
Independent truck driver Roger Johnson, 65, of Paris, Tenn., estimated that about 40 to 50 truckloads of ice had been off-loaded by Wednesday afternoon and left outdoors to melt away around a concrete slab about a half-mile from the prison gate at the end of La. 66.
Johnson said his 18-wheeler carried a cargo of between 41,000 and 43,000 pounds of ice that convicts unloaded under guard Wednesday afternoon. He said he could see people trying to reload a small portion of the bulk ice shipments into pickup trucks.
“Looks like they were trying to save a little bit of it, but there’s so much of it, there is no way they are going to find a place to keep that much ice,” he said.
Refrigeration trucks bearing the hurricane mission placard seen on ice trucks in the relief effort were awaiting entry at the front gate of Angola Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning.
At 10 a.m. Thursday, seven refrigerated trucks were at the gate. A like number of trucks departed through the gate as the seven waiting trucks were let in. About an hour had elapsed by the time the last one got through the gate.
Homeland Security personnel began receiving inquiries on Monday about the disposition of unused hurricane commodities and whether ice had to be disposed of. By Thursday night, Christina Stephens, spokeswoman for the agency, had not responded to questions about whether ice was being allowed to melt at Angola.
Pam Laborde, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, referred questions about the ice operation at Angola and a request to photograph it to Homeland Security on Wednesday.
Stephens did say the state ordered a seven-day ice supply based on projections for Isaac as well as the state’s experience with previous storms and the power outages expected.
Isaac knocked out power to 903,000 customers, Stephens said, but most of the state regained power in three to four days, meaning the need for ice wwas drastically reduced and shipped-in ice was left unused. Stephens said the state makes no apology for being over-prepared.
“When it comes to storms, we always hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” Stephens said in an email. “We would rather be over-prepared than under-prepared.”
Stephens said recipients of unused ice have included the state Department of Corrections, state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, points of distribution for hurricane aid, sites where disaster food stamps are being distributed and the state’s ice vendor, Pelican Ice.
Wildlife and Fisheries, she said, offered to take any unused ice to support fisheries businesses such as marinas, and took several truckloads Thursday.
A seven-day ice supply consists of about 900 tractor-trailer loads of ice and is expected to cost the state $2.4 million under its 25 percent share of the total cost, Stephens said. The federal government will cover the remaining 75 percent.
The state is seeking a 90 percent federal share, which, if approved, would reduce Louisiana’s cost to less than $1 million, Stephens said.
She said the state has had as many as 1,200 trucks loaded with supplies on standby in various locations during the hurricane emergency.
The Lamar-Dixon Expo Center near Gonzales, which has been a hub of the ice and commodity distribution effort, had a couple of hundred tractor-trailers on view earlier this week.
At the center, Louisiana Army National Guard units have been coordinating the arrival and dispatch of 18-wheelers carrying ice and other commodities, said Maj. James Herriage of the 165th Army Combat Sustainment Support Battalion in Bossier City.
On Tuesday, truck drivers waiting at Lamar-Dixon spoke of carrying loads of ice since as early as Aug. 31 and being routed back and forth to various staging locations without delivering the ice: Camp Beauregard in Pineville, the city airport in Hammond, a facility off Sherwood Forest Boulevard in Baton Rouge and Lamar-Dixon.
The men said they were being paid $500 to $800 per day while waiting to deliver their cargo. The Army National Guard also refueled truck refrigeration units holding ice.
Stephens said the state does not pay truckers directly but works with a vendor who pays the truckers. She directed questions about payment to Pelican Ice. A company official did not return a message seeking comment Thursday.
Truck driver Arby Gambrel, 60, of Cincinnati, Ohio, said his Kentucky-based company had two truckloads of ice — each holding about 43,000 pounds on 25 pallets. The trucks were directed Tuesday night to leave the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, where they had been waiting, and proceed to Angola early Wednesday.
As Johnson did, Gambrel recounted a circuitous path among various staging locations since he picked up a truckload of ice Sept. 1 before finally ending up Monday at Lamar-Dixon.
Gambrel said he saw a few thousand pallets of ice Wednesday morning at Angola while convicts under guard unloaded his ice. He suggested ice shipments were being unloaded inside Angola to keep the public from seeing the waste.
“That is why they sent them trucks to that prison,” Gambrel said, adding, “The public didn’t see it, and they can deny it.”
FEMA also has had troubles striking a balance between allowing ice to melt and the cost of continuing to store it.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, FEMA came under fire for allowing millions of dollars in ice held in storage for two years to finally melt away in 2007, according to news accounts.
In an August 2007 statement, FEMA defended its decision, citing health and safety concerns over long-term ice storage, and announced it would no longer purchase and store ice for future disasters.
Ray Perez, a FEMA spokesman, said Monday ice provided for Isaac purposes was handled by Louisiana.
“FEMA did not purchase, ship, or distribute any ice; it was totally a state operation,” he said.
Staff writer James Minton
contributed to this report.