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Hurricane Rita: Lessons Learned

By Donald D. Dixon, Chief of Police, Lake Charles, Louisiana

Ma[ of New Orleans

ust a few days before the 2005 annual IACP conference opened in Miami Beach, Hurricane Rita skirted the Florida Keys as it strengthened from a category 1 to category 2 storm. Law enforcement and other emer­gency responders in southwest Louisiana watched the progress of the storm warily as forecasts indicated landfall along the cen­tral Texas coast over the next weekend. That track meant that Lake Charles, Louisiana, would likely receive a few showers from rain bands but had little chance of severe weather.

Nonetheless, for the Lake Charles Police Department, experience and policy dictate that emergency preparations begin any time a named storm enters the Gulf of Mex­ico. There was added urgency in this case as Lake Charles was now temporarily home to several thousand New Orleans evacuees displaced by Hurricane Katrina a few weeks earlier. Many were staying in homes with family or friends, but as many as 3,000 were in public shelters, and most would require transportation assistance should an evacuation order be issued.

The early forecasts were wrong. The storm instead plowed into southwest Louisiana near the Texas border with 120-mile-per-hour winds and a storm surge es­timated at up to 16 feet. Coastal communi­ties in rural Cameron Parish were washed away by the winds and the wall of water.

Lake Charles, 45 miles north of the coast, was hit hard. Rita's winds and water did extensive damage. The city of 75,000 is located on I-10 midway between Houston and New Orleans. Home to several petro­chemical facilities, the nation's 12th largest deepwater port, five casino riverboats, and some of the nation's best hunting and fish­ing opportunities, the area from Lake Charles to the Gulf is mostly marshland, with the highest point being a ridge that stands 10 feet above sea level.

Downed trees and utility poles blocked nearly every thoroughfare in the city, and destroyed as many as 500 homes. It is esti­mated that 90-95 percent of the structures in the city were damaged to some degree. The area's electrical grid was destroyed, leaving the city completely dark for seven days, although determined efforts by power crews had service restored to 95 percent of the city some 18 days later.

Providing police service in a dark, mostly deserted city was a tactical, physical, and emotional challenge for the men and women of the Lake Charles Police Department. Many officers had significant damage to their homes, and they were unable to attend to the repairs. All officers worked long hours to protect homes and businesses and to en­sure the safety of the few who did not heed the order to evacuate. Familiar landmarks were gone or damaged, and trees, poles, and other storm debris blocked darkened streets and made navigation hazardous.

The fact that the devastation in south­west Louisiana quickly faded from the na­tional news spotlight is a testament to the ef­ficiency and professionalism of these men and women.

After passing Florida, Hurricane Rita entered the Gulf of Mexico and intensified rapidly to category 5 intensity, maintaining that status until just 36 hours before landfall. The central pressure of the storm was the third lowest ever recorded, placing Rita in the record books behind only Hurricane Gilbert, which hit Cozumel, Mexico, in 1988 and the 1935 Labor Day hurricane in the Florida Keys.

Coming less than a month after Hurri­cane Katrina had devastated southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi coast, Rita also marked the first time since records have been kept that two hurricanes had reached category 5 strength in the Gulf of Mexico in the same season.

On Monday, September 19, 2005, as the storm passed near Florida and continued its track into the Gulf of Mexico, final review and revisions were completed on the Lake Charles Police Department (LCPD) Emer­gency Operations Plan, which would be initiated should the projected path of the storm change. This plan is reviewed annually and had been practiced during tabletop exercises and during a near miss by another hurricane three years earlier.

As called for in the department's emer­gency procedures, a personnel deployment plan was published and distributed to all members detailing assignments to traffic control points, patrol operations, investiga­tive details, site security, and other duties before and after the storm. Personnel were assigned to one of the two platoons that would work 12-hour shifts beginning Thursday, September 22, if needed. Each platoon consisted of approximately 65 sworn personnel. One platoon was as­signed to ride out the storm in six shelter locations in the city, providing proactive patrol to prevent looting and assist with evacuation issues as long as possible before the storm hit, and rapid response for rescue and recovery as soon as conditions permit­ted after the hurricane. The second platoon would shelter approximately 40 miles northeast of the city to provide relief after the storm passed.

Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach and other leaders made a crucial decision on Tuesday, one that would ultimately prove to be a lifesaver. Given the large number of evacuees already in the area, the city's lead­ers decided schools would close Wednes­day to allow school buses to join city and contract bus services to begin moving those evacuees north. Moving those who had no independent means of transportation had been done in previous storms, but not with the numbers of people anticipated in this evacuation.

Vehicle ran off the road in Lake Charles

As the storm's projected path changed, the evacuation recommendation became a mandatory order. Owing in part to the loss of life and devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the other side of the state just a few weeks earlier, the evacuation order was heeded by the vast majority of Lake Charles residents. This undoubtedly saved many lives, but it made it more difficult for police to protect homes and businesses from looting.

As Rita began to take direct aim at south­west Louisiana on Thursday, Calcasieu Parish Sheriff Tony Mancuso and I placed calls to federal, state, and local law enforce­ment contacts asking that personnel and equipment be made available should it be needed after the storm passed.

Police officers were advised to prepare their homes and report for duty with the ne­cessities to stay at work for several days. Civil­ian employees were released to evacuate. Patrol units were stocked with meals ready to eat, often known as MREs, and water.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, September 24, 2005, Hurricane Rita slammed into southwestern Louisiana. The magnitude of the storm had forced a halt to normal operations at 5:30 the previous evening, when sustained winds exceeded 40 miles per hour. The city of Lake Charles would be buffeted by 100-plus-mile-per-hour winds for more than six hours, with gale-force winds still being experienced in the afternoon hours Saturday.

When conditions improved enough to allow the first damage assessments after daylight Saturday morning, the scope of the disaster became clear. It was evident that the resources that had been contact­ed and placed on standby before landfall would be needed to help secure the peace in the devastated city and through­out the parish.

The department had anticipated at least a 72-hour wait before help arrived, and in general, that proved true. Also ex­pected was the need for food, water, and ice for officers during those first few days. But there were also surprises, as there al­ways are. For example, planners had never considered the ability of roofing nails and other small debris in the road­way to stop a fleet of police vehicles. The incredible flexibility of the officers of the LCPD was shown over and over, as in this instance, where a lieutenant stepped for­ward and continuously plugged tires for several days until a local business was able to volunteer their tire repairman to take over.

Support from residents and the business community was essential to the successful accomplishment of the police mission. That support included providing food for officers and fuel for vehicles, staying out of town, or voluntarily complying with the curfew. Most of those who evacuated understood that essential services such as medical care, business services, electricity, water, and sewer were unavailable, and they therefore stayed wherever they were sheltered.

A lineman from Indianapolis P&L installs a new insulator

As directed by the department's emer­gency operations plan, law enforcement in the entire parish operated under a unified command system. Operationally, Sheriff Mancuso coordinated the daytime law en­forcement functions in the parish, while the chief of the Lake Charles Police Depart­ment oversaw night actions. Five other mu­nicipal police departments participated, along with McNeese State University Po­lice. Several federal agencies and the Louisiana State Police were also present at daily planning sessions and briefings.

Primary concerns after the storm were for the safety of residents and the preven­tion of looting. The safety of residents proved to be a lesser concern, as few resi­dents chose to weather the storm by stay­ing in Lake Charles, and there were no fa­talities recorded during the event.

As for the concern about looting, the law enforcement leadership understood and took seriously their responsibility to protect the homes and businesses of those residents who had evacuated the parish. Billy Loftin, the Lake Charles city attor­ney, drafted an ordinance that created an enforceable curfew of 7:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. for the entire parish. Hal McMillan, president of the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, signed the ordinance into effect September 27, 2005.

This ordinance was an essential element of the law enforcement plan to protect the parish. Innumerable instances of looting were prevented because of this authority for officers to legally stop, question, cite, or detain those persons whose intent was to plunder vacant homes and businesses.

Another important component of the unified command plan was the appropriate placement of human assets. A significant portion of the available law enforcement staffing was dedicated to nighttime opera­tions, supported by night-capable aircraft. As most of the parish was completely with­out power for several days, these aircraft supported foot patrol and vehicular-based operations in darkened neighborhoods.

Each morning, a storm recovery briefing was held at the Calcasieu Office of Emer­gency Preparedness. Participants included elected officials, power company represen­tatives, public safety administrators, and others involved in the storm response.

Law enforcement operations were coor­dinated through a daily 9:00 a.m. briefing conducted at the Lake Charles Police Depart­ment. The meetings typically took 30 min­utes to complete followed a rigid agenda:

  1. Intelligence information

  2. Events of the past 24 hours and expec­tations for the next 24 (known as 24/24)

  3. Staffing needs

  4. Issues by exception

  5. Closing comments by the daytime and nighttime operation commanders

The first agenda item allowed discus­sion of any incoming intelligence known to the assembled chiefs and other law en­forcement leaders. The second agenda item, the 24/24 section, required all agen­cies involved to identify locations of crimi­nal activity during the preceding 24 hours to the LCPD crime analyst. This informa­tion was plotted on maps projected in the briefing room and updated daily.

The third agenda item, the deploy­ment of personnel for the next 24-hour period, particularly night operations, was based on the hard data from the 24/24 report and on requests from the agencies represented at the briefing. By basing deployment of human assets on reported problems and anecdotal infor­mation from chiefs present, smaller com­munities and unincorporated areas of the parish were provided significant re­sources that would otherwise not have been available to respond to or prevent problems in those areas.

Issues by exception followed the staffing needs discussion, presenting an opportunity to discuss and resolve a number of concerns that faced law en­forcement during the aftermath of the storm. Matters that came up during this section of the briefing included topics such as permission for those that had le­gitimate reasons to be on the streets after curfew, such as doctors and nurses pro­viding emergency care and plant workers attempting to restart area industries. The solution was a numbered, brightly colored vehicle permit with review of requests and distribution managed by McNeese University police officers at their office on a cleared main traffic artery. For outlying areas, an application was developed that agencies could fax to McNeese and have the permit delivered to the requesting chief at the next morning's briefing.

Other issues discussed and resolved during this section of the agenda included housing and registration with the FBI command post for outside agencies assist­ing local authorities; special security needs of pharmacies, banks, and gun stores; the development of a temporary work permit system for outside disaster-relief companies such as tree removal op­erations; and crowd control concerns at food stamp and Red Cross sites.

The briefings closed with a synopsis by the day and night operations comman­ders (sheriff and LCPD chief) of the events, needs, and plans of the group.

For the city of Lake Charles, the LCPD Uniformed Patrol Division continued to provide basic law enforcement service throughout the recovery period. Two shifts were on duty at all times, with offi­cers from outside agencies augmenting the staffing available. Deployment infor­mation was maintained on electronic sit­uation boards in the briefing room. One captain was assigned to oversee daytime operations and one captain worked nights. The two shifts on duty divided the city north and south with a lieutenant overseeing each area.

To allow officers as much patrol time in neighborhoods as possible, routine reporting requirements were lifted. A short-form offense report was created to be filled out by victims of most property crimes. Each report given to a victim was assigned a computer-assisted dispatch (CAD) call number. Police assigned a re­port number to the case when and if the re­port was actually turned into the police de­partment. Normal reporting requirements continued in place for violent crimes.

It was determined early in the planning process that night operations would be crit­ical to controlling looting and other crimi­nal activity. The LCPD police chief as­sumed responsibility for nighttime law enforcement across the parish. In addition to providing higher staffing levels for rou­tine patrol functions, specialized operations were undertaken in problem areas.

For the LCPD, nighttime operations con­sisted of three distinct components: regular patrol, with 31-50 officers assigned; a full squad of detectives, ranging from 13-16 personnel assigned specifically to looter pa­trol; and the search-and-rescue team's (SRT) specialized assignment, which became known as NightOps and would eventually involve 60-80 officers each night.

Regular patrol operations at night in­volved two patrol shifts of approximately 20 officers each, supplemented later in the operation by 10 officers from the West Ten­nessee Strike Team. These officers were the primary responders to calls for service.

The LCPD Detective Division formed a looter patrol that worked from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. under the command of the detec-tive lieutenant. This operation patrolled in their assigned unmarked units and the detectives were responsible for several loot­ing arrests and a number of curfew violation arrests.

A few detectives were held in reserve for major crime investigations on both day and night shifts. These detectives also in­terviewed those arrested on looting charges in hopes of solving other crimes.

Although this was an effective use of available resources, the large number of open storm-damaged homes and busi­nesses made it clear that additional steps would be needed to curb looting, particu­larly as more people returned to the city. As outside assets responded with self-suffi-cient teams pursuant to the chief's request, additional trained SWAT officers became available to support routine patrol opera­tions by undertaking specialized assign­ments to detect and deter potential crimi­nal activity. To accomplish this mission, outside personnel were divided into teams and assigned either an LCPD or CPSO offi­cer as team leader. Typically 60-80 person­nel were available to work this detail on a 12-hour shift from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. The teams were assigned specific geo­graphic locations of responsibility based on the needs identified in the 9:00 a.m. briefing.

Team leaders were given their assign­ments at a meeting with the chief at the start of the shift. They had broad areas of responsibility but were also ordered to pro­vide intense coverage at specific locations.

Some of the tactics more closely re­sembled military operations to search for enemy combatants than typical civilian law enforcement procedures, but the tac­tics were effective in locating looters and other lawbreakers. Most SRT engage­ments and training scenarios involve en­tering, clearing, and securing a single lo­cation, but officers involved in this operation were searching large areas in complete darkness. In addition to fixed-post observation and surveillance, SRT officers also used foot- and vehicle-based patrol tactics.

Air support was an important compo­nent of the looting prevention and detec­tion work done. One officer was as­signed to each aircraft flying that night to provide direction to ground units. The aircrafts were equipped with the FLIR imaging systems or other night vision equipment that was essential to detect­ing movement in the darkened city. On a typical night, one fixed-wing aircraft and two helicopters from outside agencies would patrol.

A number of outside law enforcement agencies who responded to assist support­ed routine patrol operations and the spe­cialized NightOps to prevent looting dur­ing the recovery period.

Personnel and equipment provided by other municipal police agencies and sher-iff's offices were critical to keeping the peace in Lake Charles after the storm. The LCPD chief requested and received assis­tance from several federal agencies includ­ing the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Department of Homeland Security's Im­migrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Secret Service, and the Bu­reau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Ex­plosives. The assistance took the form of human assets and equipment.

In addition to the federal resources deployed to the Lake Charles area, a num­ber of municipal police departments and sheriff's agencies provided support. Those assigned to the Lake Charles Police De­partment were from the Alexandria, Louisiana, Police Department, the West Tennessee Strike Team, and a Louisiana National Guard military police company. Too many agencies answered the call to help throughout southwest Louisiana to list them all here, but we acknowledge their sacrifice and are grateful for their tireless work during our time of need.

Outside assets were arranged through personal contact by the chief, the sheriff, and others and through the Incident Com­mand System. The Louisiana Sheriffs' As­sociation and the Louisiana Attorney Gen-eral's Office each made a staff member available for this function. The FBI, as pro­vided for in the National Response Plan, provided registration and tracking for incoming agency personnel.

In all cases, outside agencies were asked to be as self-sustaining as possible. Two venues were used to house the Alexandria and Tennessee teams. Alexandria officers were housed on the parking lot of the LCPD in coaches provided by a local busi­nessman. These officers were fed in the chow line at the police department and showered at the nearby Lake Charles Fire Department station.

The Tennessee team was housed at the first responder base camp at Mc-Neese State University. All necessary ser­vices were available at the camp, includ­ing large air-conditioned tents, meals, showers, and laundry service.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was already stretched thin by the demands placed on it in south­east Louisiana and along the Mississippi coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katri­na. In Lake Charles, officials submitted lists of needs to the parish office of emer­gency preparedness on handwritten forms. If the parish office approved the re­quests, it sent them electronically to the state emergency management office which reviewed them there and either approved or rejected them. This system worked most of the time, but officials in Lake Charles had to find creative ways to obtain some needed commodities.

Operations Center in Lake Charles

Hurricane Rita damaged or destroyed the homes of many officers working long hours to provide for the safety and security of the city. One of the most important steps taken during this emergency was the as­signment of a small number of employees with building and home repair skills to a crew that provided basic repair services for the department's employees. This team re­paired or secured 72 officers' homes within days of the storm, and that action was es­sential to the well-being of the officers who were being asked to sacrifice so much. One officer who was barely able to perform his duties was amazingly transformed back to his normal productivity when this crew was able to remove a tree that was across the roof of his house.

Police administrators and supervisors should be keenly alert for any changes in the health-both physical and mental- of employees during a devastating emer­gency situation. Contact was made early with mental health counselors should their services be needed by our staff. We ensured that all officers were up-to-date with tetanus vaccinations and made the shots available through public health. Thankfully, the department experienced only seven minor injuries to officers. More serious injuries would have pre­sented significant problems, as the lack of water and sewer services had forced all hospitals to close.

Feeding the officers and those who came to assist was a significant opera­tion. A few police employees and several community volunteers were able to ac­complish this task admirably. During the early days of the storm, many citizens provided food for law enforcement. Businesses and schools also made avail­able the stock that was in their freezers, which would soon be ruined if not used. Food was stored at the police depart­ment in donated refrigerated trailers.

Acquisition of other commodities was in some cases more difficult. Law enforce­ment leaders should become familiar with the processes that will be used to obtain the basic needs to keep a police agency func­tioning during and after an emergency. MREs, water, ice, and fuel are essential to maintaining police service to the commu­nity. Now is the time to learn how emer­gency managers expect that system to work in your area.

The law enforcement mission during disaster recovery is greatly affected by the well-being of the citizens served. If the basic needs of victims are not being met, civil un­rest and other issues will rapidly become police problems. Two weeks after the pass­ing of the storm, community leaders identi­fied a need to coordinate local and national services being provided to residents. The purpose was to ensure that basic needs, such as shelter and food, were available for storm victims and to assess the provision of other services, such as medical, mental health, and child care.

The City of Lake Charles and a local not-for-profit counseling agency developed the Human Services Response Initiative. This initiative brought together government agencies and nonprofit entities to identify gaps in available services and reduce dupli­cation of services being provided. The group met twice a week for several weeks after appointing leaders in eight impact areas:

  • Sustenance

  • Shelter and housing

  • Child and youth care

  • Recreation

  • Self-sufficiency

  • Medical care

  • Mental health

  • Personal Safety

Through involvement with this initia­tive, the police leadership was better able to anticipate where police resources would be needed, such as food stamp distribution sites, and deal with a host of other issues, such as ensuring that mentally ill residents were able to access needed medication and counseling services.

Law enforcement issues that came be­fore the group early on included expired temporary protective orders in domestic violence cases. Scheduled court hearings in several cases were missed because the courts remained closed. Working with women's advocates and family practice attorneys, police found solutions for this issue. Because of the police department's participation in this initiative, police call takers could tell citizens where food, shelter, and other services were available in the city.

Team Leaders

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, we sent officers to that area to assist. Katrina posed bigger challenges for the agencies involved, in­cluding the loss of life, much higher lev­els of flooding, and radio communica­tion problems.

But we learned lessons in New Or­leans that helped us deal with Hurricane Rita. In particular, we learned the impor­tance of cohesiveness between and among government and public safety leaders. Speaking with one voice and fol­lowing a practiced plan helps maintain community trust and respect for law en­forcement.

Chief Don Dixon of Lake Charles, Louisiana, briefs team leaders from local, state, and federal police agencies in It is our hope that what we learned preparation for nighttime operations across the parish after Hurricane Rita. Photograph by Lieutenant Joel from these two destructive storms can Bolton, Lake Charles Police Department help you prepare your department for the unexpected. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 2, February 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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