La. Guard practices storm response

Tested under real-life circumstances with more frequency during recent years than their counterparts in any other state, Louisiana National Guard personnel held their annual interagency disaster training exercise in St. Tammany and St. Landry parishes Saturday.

At Fontainebleau State Park, about 450 people from partnering agencies gathered to practice land and water search and rescue, decontamination, medical response, the interoperability of communication systems, site security, registration of people and pets, distribution of food, water and other commodities and transportation to shelters.

The exercise takes place annually in advance of hurricane season but is designed for response to any and all natural or man-made hazards.

Over and over, officials stated the vital importance of communication and cooperation among agencies.

“There’s no way we can do it on our own,” said Capt. James Hoover, commander of the 927th Sapper Co. based in Baton Rouge. “There’s so much need and so little time,” he said.

With experience from hurricanes Katrina to Isaac, Hoover said, every disaster presents unique challenges, as well as opportunities to identify weaknesses and make improvements for the next disaster.

All governmental agencies and civilian entities have their roles and functions — and the goal is a seamless joint effort to keep people safe and instill confidence under the most difficult of circumstances.

A state of readiness by all agencies is critical, Hoover said.

Lead agency for water rescues is the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which the guard provides with secondary support.

Hoover said the annual exercise provides very valuable water training for his company, which is land-based and engineering focused.

There’s the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry — which is in charge of animal evacuation, livestock and disease, fueling governmental vehicles, logistical support and aerial surveillance.

There’s the state Department of Health and Hospitals, which works with local hospitals and emergency medial services and assists in sheltering people.

Once rescued, civilians go through the triage and decontamination process. They then are registered through the state Department of Child and Family Services, which tries to keep families together and account for unaccompanied minors.

Also participating Saturday were representatives of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the State Police, the state Department of Transportation and Development, as well as sheriff’s offices and municipal police departments along with other civilian agencies.

With every storm comes lessons learned.

With technology compromised, Hoover said, finding ways to improve communication among agencies was one of the critical lessons learned during Katrina.

Also since Katrina, when it became apparent that many people were willing to risk their lives rather than leave their pets, rescuing and caring for animals has become incorporated into the preparation and process.

On Saturday, a handful of dogs from a St. Tammany shelter participated in the exercise by venturing out into Lake Pontchartrain on boats and going through a decontamination tent before being registered into an online system.

While representatives from numerous agencies were on hand to both participate as well as watch and learn, the observers travelling the farthest were a team from Haiti, led by the director of Haiti’s equivalent of the Emergency Operations Center.

One of the biggest lessons learned in the past decade has been the preparation required to face the awesome and unpredictable power of Mother Nature, said Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry,

Strain talked about responding to Katrina while Hurricane Rita barreled toward the coast, and responding to Hurrican Gustav while Hurricane Ike bore down on Louisiana’s coast.

And in Katrina, it wasn’t just a neighborhood, or an entire city, or even an entire parish underwater — it was multiple parishes, Strain said.

During Isaac, parts of St. John the Baptist Parish flooded that had never before seen floods, Strain said. An important part of the job is to anticipate the unexpected, he said.

“We will be ready, we will be there, if and when they need us,” Maj. Gen. Glenn Curtis said.

As for the visit from the Haitian group Saturday, Strain said that both nationally and internationally, Louisiana responders are utilized for their expertise in emergency response.

“We are good because we are tried and tested,” Strain said. “And because we do continual training exercises.”