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Louisiana's emergency plan designates DSS as the primary agency in charge of mass care, emergency assistance, mass feeding, housing and human services. This role encompasses coordinating evacuation of individuals who require assistance getting out of harm's way and coordinating and managing Critical Transportation Needs Shelters (CTNS), Medical Special Needs Shelters (MSNS) and Sex Offender Shelters.
"We have looked closely at the issues that cropped up during the 2008 hurricane season and have worked with our vendors, state and local partners and stakeholders to make substantial changes designed to improve the safety of evacuees, as well as their comfort, during a declared emergency," DSS Secretary Kristy Nichols said. "Our primary goal during a disaster is to ensure the safety and security of our citizens and staff during a declared emergency."
DSS has revamped its registration process to allow for more accurate tracking of citizens, pets and luggage. Upon arrival at a parish pickup point, evacuees will register and receive a wristband and ticket number, which will be used to create a manifest. The revised system will allow for greater ease of keeping families together and allowing pet owners to go to shelters near their pets.
Once at the shelter, additional changes have been implemented to help keep evacuees informed, as well as provide a safe and secure environment away from the storm.
DSS is partnering with the Children's Coalition to provide recreational opportunities and activities for children at shelters, including story time, arts and crafts, movies and supervised free play. Shelters will also provide bottles, baby food and formula, bottle warmers, sterilizers, diapers and changing tables, which will be distributed to parents on an as needed basis by staff at each facility. However, DSS encourages parents to pack at least a three day supply of diapers, food, bottles and other needed items for their children.
DSS is also improving medical access in shelters. Each facility will have a medical team with a medical director, registered nurse, licensed practical nurse, certified nurse's aid and licensed nurse practitioner or physician's assistant. An ambulance and paramedics will be on standby, as well. Additionally, DSS has contracted for personal care assistants to provide services for older adults and those with special needs. Mental health counseling services will also be available on-site. Facilities will also have expanded capacity to serve individuals with medical needs, including having accessible restrooms and showers available.
One of the main issues that have been modified involves the availability of hygiene stations, which were delayed in arriving during Hurricane Gustav. Not only will showers, toilets and hand washing stations be on-site when evacuees first arrive at the shelters, but the capacity of each has been expanded as well. The following ratios will be in effect:
- One shower per 25 people
- One toilet per 20 people
- One hand-washing stations per 20 people
To increase evacuees' sense of comfort at the shelters, DSS will apply a modified American Red Cross standard of 30 square feet per person for both pre- and post-storm sleeping arrangements. The American Red Cross (ARC) standard is 20 square feet before a storm and 40 square feet after the storm.
Each shelter will be pre-stocked with a three-day supply of Meals Ready to Eat, water and comfort kits, with extra inventory warehoused to replenish stock. Televisions will be available at each shelter to provide updated news and information to evacuees, along with phone banks to allow for short calls to family members. Public Information Officers will be located in each shelter, along with interpreters to assist the visually and hearing impaired and evacuees who do not speak English.
A major change to the sheltering plan is establishing a point-to-point shelter model. In this evacuation model, evacuating parishes make an agreement with a host parish to receive its residents. Generally, under these agreements, the ARC manages and staffs the shelter, while the state fills in any gaps in supplies, transportation and other requirements.
"Point-to-point sheltering allows parishes to better track where its residents are housed during a disaster," said Nichols. "The result is improved communication between parishes and residents, as well as better advocacy for those citizens."
In the event of a full coastal evacuation, blended sheltering will be in effect. Shelters will house both critical transportation needs evacuees, as well as general population evacuees. Blended shelters will be staffed by the American Red Cross.
"We hope these improvements will result in a better experience for evacuees during a storm," said Nichols. "Although no shelter can duplicate a home environment, making sure our citizens are safe and comfortable is a top priority."
Earlier this year, DSS, along with the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, announced that 50,000 shelter spaces were available to house evacuees in a disaster, including 26,000 spaces provided by five partnering states.
States offering shelter space for planning purposes are:
- Texas - 10,000 spaces
- Georgia - 5,000 spaces
- Tennessee - 5,000 spaces
- Arkansas - 4,000 spaces
- Kentucky - 2,000 spaces
Last year, Hurricane Gustav forced the state to call for a full coastal evacuation. It was the first time officials required residents of both southeast and southwest Louisiana to leave their homes in advance of a storm. Of the estimated two million evacuees, 37,000 were housed in Critical Transportation Needs Shelters, in and out of the state.