‘We haven’t been tested’ — Boulet proposes new emergency prep office

Monique Blanco Boulet using hand gestures
Mayor-President Monique Boulet has revived a multi-agency collaborative designed to get disparate parts of the criminal justice system on the same page. Image courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The Lafayette Parish Council at a special meeting Tuesday night preliminarily approved the creation of two new positions that would coordinate the parish’s response to an emergency situation, such as hurricanes, extreme heat, or terrorist threats.

The director of emergency management, with the support of an emergency management officer, would act as a coordinator between first responders, local government officials and the general public in case of an emergency, along with providing guidance on emergency preparedness.

In an interview, Mayor-President Monique Boulet didn’t mince words in her assessment of the current state of emergency preparedness: “We don’t have a plan.”

The proposal to create a position dedicated to emergency preparedness comes at the beginning of what is predicted to be an intense hurricane season that has already produced the earliest Category 5 storm in history, Beryl, which made landfall on the small Caribbean island of Carriacou, causing massive destruction.

The imminent threat of storms this time of year did play a role in the timing of the proposal, according to Boulet. “I was worried that if we did it after hurricane season, we’d be caught flat-footed,” the mayor-president said.

Currently, emergency response and preparedness is coordinated by the Lafayette Parish Communication District’s 9-1-1 division, but Boulet said a dedicated in-house department is needed to bring the parish’s emergency response capabilities up to the national standard.

“We are of the size and substance that we should have this,” Boulet said of Lafayette Parish. “We need to think differently about this.”

Lafayette’s current ordinance governing emergency response hasn’t been updated since 1977 and, according to Boulet, was primarily designed to respond to bomb threats. The proposal seeks to completely repeal the existing ordinance in favor of a new one that would create two positions — one director and one manager — and bring the city’s system in compliance with state law.

Boulet said one of the reasons past parish leadership may have slacked on updating the city’s response system is that Lafayette, compared to other areas of the state, has been spared the most severe weather impacts, especially with regards to hurricanes.

“We haven’t been tested,” Boulet noted.

Lafayette’s first responders have been a strong line of defense, Boulet and her chief of staff, Christina Dayries, said, but a central coordinating body is necessary to ensure residents’ safety and preparedness.

“We’re just missing that true, professional emergency preparedness piece,” said Dayries, who spent her career working in emergency preparedness and public safety, most recently serving as deputy director and chief of staff for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Despite her extensive experience in the field, Dayries is not seeking the emergency preparedness position, should the office get the green light.

In addition to hiring personnel to handle coordination and planning, plans for overhauling the parish’s system include the launch of a new local notification system, the creation of shelter and evacuation plans and an assessment of local infrastructure’s readiness. Should the proposal be approved, Boulet said the administration plans to release shelter and evacuation plans this hurricane season.

According to the mayor-president, preliminary conversations with potential candidates have made her hopeful that quality candidates for the role should be identified quickly once applications open.

“We’ve had some really good, superstar-type interest,” Boulet said.

The annual cost of the positions would amount to $223,000, with a majority going to salaries and benefits for the two new full-time hires and roughly $36,000 allocated for operational costs. Some of that cost is expected to be covered by a GOHSEP grant of approximately $77,000, with the remaining cost coming out of parish funds.

The Lafayette Parish Council voted 4-1 to introduce the ordinance during a special meeting Tuesday. 

Council Member John Guilbeau voted against introducing the ordinance. Guilbeau said he had enlightening conversations with Dayries ahead of Tuesday’s meeting and wasn’t against the ordinance but thought it was being rushed. He made a motion to defer the introduction until the council’s next regular meeting in two weeks, but that motion failed because nobody seconded it. 

“Doing something like this during the course of the (hurricane) season that we’re in gives me a lot of concern,” Guilbeau said. “I would like to see that we not rush this. I feel like we are. If we’re going to make this happen, we need to make sure that it’s properly vetted.”

Guilbeau also questioned if the current system could be salvaged.

“We need to at least have that conversation,” Guilbeau said. “And I don’t know that we can do it in the next month or two given the circumstances. I understand the anxiety, the nervousness of the storms out there and so forth, but I’ve always been told by my dad, ‘Haste makes waste.’ And I don’t want to be in that situation and have to come back in several months or a year or two and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to make all these changes.'”

The proposed budget and staff for Lafayette Parish are still lower than other Louisiana parishes, according to data Dayries compiled for the Parish Council.

Parish Population Budget Budget per capita Staff
 East Baton Rouge 456,781 1,176,570 2.58 7
 Orleans 383,997 8,500,000 22.14  24
 St. Tammany 264,570 530,804 2.01 5
 Lafayette 241,753 223,000 0.92 2
 Calcasieu 216,785 1,626,224 7.50 8.5 
 Ouachita 160,368 291,000 1.81 3 
 Tangipahoa 133,157 627,637 4.71 3
 Rapides 130,023 230,000 1.77  3 
 Bossier 128,746 400,000  3.11  2
 Ascension 126,500 802,500 6.34  3
 Terrebonne 109,580 776,701  7.09 5

If approved, the ordinance would be scheduled for final adoption July 16, after which the positions can be opened for applications.

In the meantime, Boulet urged residents to create personal evacuation plans, especially those who live in more vulnerable structures such as mobile homes, or who have elderly family members or other loved ones with special needs.

Due to the experience of relative safety, Acadiana residents are less likely to consider evacuation and make concrete plans for it, Boulet pointed out, but especially in light of the predictions for this hurricane season, that should be reevaluated, she noted. “That’s what we have got to do right now: have individuals plan for their own families.”

The Acadiana Advocate reporter Megan Wyatt contributed to this report.