Rita One Year Later: Evacuation

September 19, 2006

Reported by Britney Glaser

If you were one of the thousands of local residents that evacuated for last year's storms, then you probably felt the frustrations of sitting in gridlocked traffic.  But, the evacuation of Southwest Louisiana before Hurricane Rita made landfall was a success, and local officials believe that in the event of another storm, people will again listen to evacuation orders.

Last year's hurricanes brought about the largest evacuations in Louisiana's history, but the success story of Southwest Louisiana's exodus from Hurricane Rita has served as a model for future evacutions. Dick Gremillion, Director of the Calcasieu Office of Emergency Preparedness says, "I think the availability of good, honest information to the public made the difference."

Hal McMillin was the Calcasieu Parish Policy Jury President for 2005.  "We went on TV all together that morning and we made the announcement in whole, so every city was represented. It was a situation that we didn't know for sure if the hurricane was coming, but if it was, it could be a very bad situation. In hindsight, one of the best decisions we ever made, because people listened," said McMillin.

As Rita moved closer to Louisiana's coast, evacuations were recommended, but it was not long until they were made mandatory.  Although there were some obstacles in moving people out of the area, overall the evacuaton went smoothly. McMillin says, "That was a major part of evacuation, was getting schools closed and getting Hurricane Katrina evacuees out of here as quickly as possible."

Steve Giles with Louisiana DOTD says the evacuation was a great success and "everybody that wanted out got out safely."  Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach added, "The other part of the evacuation that was pretty significant is that we did this in less than 48 hours."

The timing of an evacuation is critical.  Lake area residents on the road saw some major delays during last year's evacuations, but the $4.7 billion LA TIMED road program has 16 transportation projects in progress that will make future evacuations less stressful.  On US 171, the 121-mile project is more than halfway complete. In 2010, the full stretch will be a four-laned to allow faster access from Lake Charles to Shreveport.  On US 165, the 173-mile project widening the roads from I-10 in Lake Charles to Bastrop, then all the way to the Arkansas state line is almost halfway completed. This project will also be completed in late 2010.

Governor Kathleen Blanco told residents of Southwest Louisiana, "Before the next storm season, you will be able to move freely between the Lake Charles area and DeRidder.  We are going to continue this motion until we get all the way up to north Louisiana. This is an important and critical investment to Louisiana to our people."

Gremillion says that even with the massive construction projects underway, we are ready to handle another evacuation.  "I think we're ready," says Gremillion, "I think we were ready last year, and I think the results prove that out."

Mayor Roach says, "I don't think that having gone through Hurricane Katrina and Rita, I don't think that this generation will have to be told twice, ever, to evacuate."

Be sure to watch KPLC Friday night for "Hurricane Rita-One Year Later." The one-hour special starts at 8:00 p.m.