Officials ask state for notification of storm evacuees

Deidre Cruse

The addition of patients from four coastal region nursing homes at the old Winn-Dixie building on Belleview Road created numerous problems for local officials and responders during Hurricane Gustav, and the state is offering little help for a similar situation in a future storm, officials reported.

“It caught us off guard,” said Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. “Our resources were stretched.

Ourso said he and Emergency Preparedness Director Laurie Doiron met last week with state Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Jimmy Guidry to ask that the parish at least be notified when nursing home operators from other areas plan to evacuate patients here.

“We have evacuation plans for the two nursing homes in Iberville,” Ourso said. “It is mandated that local nursing homes have to provide that to the local Office of Emergency Preparedness. Nursing homes evacuating to Iberville don’t have to let the parish know.”

Doiron said the outside nursing homes are supposed to be self-sufficient, but that her office began getting calls for immediately after the patients arrived – starting with a request for help with off-loading the patients, and later for help replacing a generator that didn’t work and even for flashlight batteries – at a time the parish was dealing with its own big emergency.

“That just taxes your resources more and more when you need them most,” Doiron said. “And, the [local] hospital received damage, too.”

“Winn-Dixie was a very big problem,” Plaquemine Mayor Mark A. “Tony” Gulotta agreed. “In the wake of the evacuation, we were actually sending our first responders over there almost every hour...We were never told what the place was bought for. We just started getting calls.”

Plaquemine firefighters provide the first response when Acadian Ambulance requests them to take a local call.

“We have more people to take care of than that,” the mayor said. “The people there really did a good job, but it was just not sufficient. We were tied up all day long for a two- or three-day period.”

Doiron said apparently a man who operates a number of nursing homes in the state bought the old Winn-Dixie building on Belleview Road after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“They bought this place,” she said, “but they didn’t think it through...With Iberville South of I-10, it was not a good plan. Iberville is not a sheltering parish.”

Doiron said she had brought the situation up as a potential during a hurricane preparation before the 2006 hurricane season.

“Dr. Guidry said that would not happen,” she said.

Both Ourso and Gulotta emphasized they did not want to deny help to anyone.

“I don’t want to close my borders to anybody evacuating from the south,” Ourso said. “This was a surprise to us. It’s weighing on us.”

The parish president said Dr. Guidry said DHH doesn’t govern the situation, and indicated it would not try to act unless the Legislature passed a new law.

“It wasn’t like it was a big deal to them,” Doiron said, “But they certainly understood how we were caught off guard. [They indicated] if we passed a resolution not to allow them to use the building, they would not hold it against us.”