Mayor-President’s Operations Center on Harding

Mayor-President’s Operations Center on Harding

Inside the Command Center During  Hurricane Isaac’s Romp Through BR

David Barrow, Assistant to Mayor of City of Central

 

[Editor’s Note: David Barrow represented the City of Central at the EBR Mayor-President’s command center on Harding Boulevard during Hurricane Isaac.  The Capital City News asked him to explain what went on inside that command center.]

With the approach of Hurricane Isaac, officials from across East Baton Rouge Parish began making plans last Monday, Aug. 27 when they realized that a storm was headed straight towards the Baton Rouge area with a scheduled landfall along the coast on Wednesday morning.  JoAnne Moreau and her staff at the EBR Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (MOHSEP) on Harding Blvd. were busy preparing the second floor as both a headquarters and home for the next several days for almost two dozen different agencies across the parish.

In the large operations room overlooking the first-floor 911 communications center through large plates of glass, workers were making sure that the four long rows of tables containing everyone’s work stations, computers, and telephones were up and running.  A dozen large screen television monitors line the four walls of the room.

Upon my arrival on Tuesday afternoon around 5 p.m., the room was busy with almost 50 people from various agencies including the EBR Mayor-President’s Office, Baton Rouge Police Department, EBR Sheriff’s Office, Southern University Police, State Police, EMS, Baton Rouge Fire Department, several volunteer fire departments, EBR Department of Public Works, EBR Traffic Engineering, National Guard, Entergy, Demco, BR Water Co, Baker, Zachary, Central, as well as several volunteer organizations and agencies.

Members of the news media were also there ready to cover all of the events.  Everyone was gathering coordinated information to relay back to their departments and groups.   Mayor Holden, Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel, and EBR Public Works Director David Guillory addressed everyone with their plans for the parish and told everyone not to panic, but to expect considerable tropical storm force winds for a sustained period.  Later in the evening around 11 p.m. after realizing that the storm had slowed down in the gulf, I decided to return home to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for a couple of long days ahead.

I didn’t get much sleep.  I was thinking about the getting back up early to head to MOHSEP and worried about the damage that the storm was going to cause to Central and the massive cleanup that would need to be taken care of after the storm.  I remember the three months of cleanup in Central that I was in charge of after Gustav and wasn’t looking forward to that again, especially after hearing the predictions that this storm could be worse than Gustav due to the new track of the storm.

I woke up at 5 a.m. Wednesday morning to look out the window to see light rain falling and not much wind blowing.  I checked the Weather Channel to see that the storm was still on path for a late-evening arrival in the Baton Rouge area.

I packed my bag and headed back to MOHSEP where the preparations were getting more intense.  At 8:30 a.m., each agency in the room gave an update on their preparations.  The Baton Rouge Police Dept. and EBR Sheriff’s Office announced they were extending shifts and putting extra officers on the streets.  DPW was mobilizing tree trimming crews, barricades, and signal trucks at their Chippewa offices to be ready to go out after the storm passed.  Utility companies announced they were bringing in additional crews from across the country to help with restoration.

Walter Monsour, former Chief Administrative Officer to Mayor Holden, was on hand to offer his guidance and leadership.  JoAnne Moreau and her staff were all acting like the professionals that they are in making sure everyone was taken care of and that everything was working according to plan.   After seeing all the coordination among agencies in that room, I knew that East Baton Rouge Parish was in good hands.

At 10 a.m., Mayor-President Holden gave an update, along with reports from William Daniel, David Guillory,  Police Chief Dwayne White, and Fire Chief Ed Smith.   Throughout the day as the winds began to increase, I coordinated this information back to Central officials who were stationed at the Central Fire Department’s command center on Sullivan Rd.   DPW advised that they were not delivering any more sand to fire stations across the parish due to the winds getting stronger and hazardous conditions on the roadway.  We knew it was about to get rough.

After noon, lunch was prepared in the cafeteria.  As I ate a sandwich, I could see out the hurricane-proof windows that the wind was starting to blow harder as the rain came down stronger. I knew it was going to be a long evening.

Back in the operations center, some workers had already been in that room for 24 hours straight, but they never complained and kept doing their jobs of answering calls and giving reports.  In a separate room on the 2nd floor throughout the afternoon, Mayor Holden and his city-parish staff were busy making preparations and plans for a storm that was being compared to Hurricane Betsy back in the 1960’s.

I was posting updates on the city of Central’s Facebook page so that our citizens would know what was going on.  I knew even if they had lost power, they could still check for updates on their cell phones through our facebook page.  Around 4 p.m., my station was slow, having only fielded two calls from Central residents who had called the Parish’s “311” information hot line.  I could see the workers at the EBR DPW station were getting overwhelmed with calls, so I went over to help them.  They were already getting calls of downed trees and utility lines.

Traffic Engineering officials were making a list of road closures that ended up exceeding 50 locations.  Looking through the large windows into the 911 command center, I could see the images of the DOTD interstate traffic cameras.  There was barely a car on the interstates anywhere.

It was decided soon after that a curfew would be placed throughout EBR Parish starting at 6 p.m.  Police Chief White and Sheriff Gautreaux announced there would be no tolerance for anyone breaking curfew.  Everyone was urged to stay off the streets as conditions deteriorated.  Sustained winds of 65 mph were expected.  However, as updates came in, we all realized that the storm had slowed and was not moving north as fast as expected.  This could be a good thing for Baton Rouge.

About 8 p.m., someone announced that the parking lot was flooding towards the southern side and water was about to get into several vehicles.  Many people put on raincoats supplied by BR Police to brave the conditions and move their vehicles. Nearly a foot of water had accumulated in portions of the parking lot.

News reporters continued to cover the unfolding events.  As I looked up at one point, a TV camera was focused on me.  I wasn’t sure which station it was, so I asked the cameraman, and he said he was from CBS national news.  A crew arrived to film the center’s activities and speak with Mayor Holden and his staff.   The Sheriff’s Dept. work station was across from me, and not many calls were coming in.  The calls that were coming in were mostly to report downed trees across roadways.  The Sheriff’s Office employees at that station were doing an excellent job of coordinating calls and dispatches.  The Entergy spokesperson gave continued updates on outages and repair schedules.  TV monitors around the room were tuned to the Weather Channel and local stations that were broadcasting storm events non-stop.  I watched the reporters in New Orleans and Biloxi, and it looked bad.

As the night wore on, we were informed that the winds were not quite as strong as predicted due to the fact that the storm had lost some strength due the slow northward movement.  However, the wind was still blowing hard and the rain was coming down. Jay Grymes from WAFB was keeping everyone informed of the conditions. Traffic Engineering reported that nearly 50 percent of the parish’s signals were out due to electricity or damaged signal heads.  William Daniel reminded viewers watching on TV to adhere to the 4-way STOP rule if a signal was out.  There was already one serious accident due to someone going through an intersection without stopping.  As the events continued overnight, it appeared that the storm had lost some intensity.

As daylight approached on Thursday, the winds were still blowing, but had died down as the storm had passed north of Baton Rouge during the night.  Rain was drizzling.  Crews were now able to get out and assess the damage.  DPW sent crews out to start repairing traffic signals and cutting trees that had fallen across roadways.

Many of the people in that room had been there for over 48 hours with little or no sleep.  Around 8:30, all agencies gave reports.  It appeared that Baton Rouge came out better than expected and experienced less damage than during Hurricane Gustav.  Police Chief White thanked citizens for obeying the curfew.  However, there was still a lot of work to do as phones continued to ring at the DPW line with reports of trees down and utility lines down.   The coordinated efforts of everyone continued throughout the morning and afternoon.

Looking back on all of this, I can say that all events at MOHSEP were handled in a professional, well-organized manner.  This was not their first experience with a major hurricane, and everyone knew their roles and handled them with near perfection.  I didn’t hear people complain. There was no time for that.  Sure, after 48 hours of being there, some were getting a little tired, but that never stopped anyone from doing their job.  I can truly say that East Baton Rouge was in good hands.

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