The gist: In a knee-jerk response to the sight of armed protestors, Lafayette officials stopped ad hoc plans to stand up shelters for Hurricane Laura evacuees with local churches. The decision went viral Saturday when an email to local disaster relief organizations leaked, drawing wide rebuke from critics inside and outside Lafayette. Many read it as a callous denial of help for those most in need — one the administration attempted to justify by citing, without evidence, a material threat to public safety.
Get caught up, quickly: Hurricane Laura shattered large parts of Calcasieu and Cameron parishes and scattered thousands across Louisiana, mostly in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Evacuees have been housed in hotels paid for by the state, in a bid to avoid creating new Covid-19 hotspots out of mass shelters. As hurricanes barreled toward Louisiana, protests erupted in Lafayette when police killed a Black man in North Lafayette. Castigating Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s response, activists have demanded his resignation, openly calling the first-term mayor a racist in light of his policies and his cold and fumbling response to the death of Trayford Pellerin.
CAO Cydra Wingerter asked disaster groups not to set up shelter in Lafayette. In an email that spread quickly on social media and caught the attention of the national press, Wingerter ties the decision to intensifying protests over Pellerin’s death. Armed men circled a demonstration Saturday, without incident, and both government and protest organizers say activists from outside are on the ground, though there has been no evidence of violence associated with them.
“This is a serious threat and we must handle this issue before we can care for our neighbors. It goes against what we believe and how we usually respond after a disaster but it would be irresponsible to potentially put others in harm’s way,” Wingerter writes. But her remarks contrast with assurances from Sheriff Mark Garber and others that the situation on the ground is under control.
To be clear, there are no plans for mass shelters for Laura evacuees in the Lafayette area. South of I-10, Lafayette is too close to the blast zone of the Gulf Coast to safely stand up shelter for families fleeing major disasters like Hurricane Laura, says Melinda Taylor, who chairs Acadiana Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Mass shelters are planned further north, to avoid compounding catastrophes in the event a hurricane hits while Lafayette shelters thousands.
“Really, the email was tilting at windmills,” Taylor says. AVOAD has focused its energies on coordinating direct aid like food, medicine and medical care, working to establish a virtual resource center and get storm victims signed up for FEMA assistance. Any mass sheltering plans — the sort that Lafayette set up to receive evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — would be coordinated by Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services or the American Red Cross. “AVOAD doesn’t set up shelter operations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster,” Taylor says.
The plans Wingerter alluded to involved shelters planned with local churches. Responding to pressure from Rep. Clay Higgins, LCG coordinated with several pastors to figure out if local shelters could be stood up quickly in Lafayette. In an email thread, Higgins dismisses the state’s official response as out-of-reach for most poor families and chided the safety considerations made in light of the still active pandemic.
“The shelters listed here are pretty much beyond the reach of most Louisiana poor folk. The ones most at risk from a [Category 4 hurricane]. To hell with COVID19. Nobody cares about COVID19 when your singlewide is getting flipped by a storm,” Higgins writes.
Guillory’s spokesman, Jamie Angelle, says plans hadn’t gotten much further than that. In a back and forth with Higgins and his representatives, Chief Minority Officer Carlos Harvin, himself the focus of intense rage among many Black leaders, reports that efforts to coordinate with local churches isn’t getting very far, given logistical challenges. “Wish I had better news,” he writes. Wingerter’s leaked message follows.
Intended or not, Wingerter’s message reinforced a growing view among critics that Guillory is hard-hearted, incompetent and even racist. Critics across the state have raked Guillory over his handling of the Pellerin shooting, the pandemic and his canyon-wide rift with Lafayette’s Black community. Many drew immediate contrast to the safe harbor Lafayette offered Katrina and Rita evacuees. Denying shelter was seen as another assault on people of color, the most likely population to be a position to need immediate refuge.
“We in no way shape or form have denied any assistance,” Angelle tells The Current. “We’ve granted every request” from neighboring parishes for mutual aid services and more.
The missteps are compounding already fraught tensions on the ground in Lafayette over the Pellerin shooting. Protests have picked up steam since Hurricane Laura passed through. Black leaders were enraged by Guillory’s first response to Pellerin’s shooting, in which he failed to extend condolences to Pellerin’s family and rushed to back police. Guillory later apologized, after speaking with Black pastors, and offered his sympathies.
Officials have postured chest-thumping strength toward growing unrest. Guillory has twice convened press conferences with law enforcement officials, promising to stand their ground against outside forces. Angelle points to traffic disruption, a break-in at a discount closing store and some small fires set in the Evangeline Thruway median as evidence concern is warranted. The sight of armed men on site at protests “rattled nerves,” he says, “and rightfully so.”
“We welcome people that stand in solidarity,” local activist Jamal Taylor says. “You can’t say a black person with a gun is an issue. It’s ridiculous.”
Activists have accused the administration of overreacting to stir up fear among the city’s mostly white, conservative families. A woman barbecuing in protest in front of Guillory’s south Lafayette home was arrested and booked. Police showed up in force to a fake “Antifa” event promoted by a satire site at the Acadiana Mall, the second such reaction this summer. Before the weekend, Guillory signed an executive order prohibiting gathering and loitering Downtown, which protestors immediately read as an attempt to shut down dissent and others have called an attempt to criminalize homelessness. That order, a rehash of an ordinance drafted by Guillory’s legal department, was in effect as demonstrators gathered around the Mouton statue, ringed by men armed with military-style rifles, which authorities did not break up. Guillory is in a deep hole with the Black community. And, in his responses thus far, he seems to only be digging deeper into it.