Watching and waiting: Novel Central La. Evacuation site offers peace of mind

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

The geography and climate of south Louisiana make this less of a prediction than a guarantee: At some point in the future, a major hurricane threatening the Mississippi Gulf Coast will trigger a mandatory evacuation of residents in the Greater New Orleans area.

After experiencing monumental challenges in evacuating hundreds of elderly residents from Chateau de Notre Dame and Wynhoven Health Care Center before the landfalls of Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Gustav in 2008, the Archdiocese of New Orleans purchased a 46,000-square-foot former Winn-Dixie supermarket in Bunkie, Louisiana – about 30 miles south of Alexandria.

Even though the 400-bed facility has not yet been used for an actual evacuation, Wayne Plaisance, chief executive officer of Chateau, Wynhoven and Our Lady of Wisdom, says the one-of-a-kind emergency evacuation facility is a godsend and offers priceless peace of mind to his elderly, frail residents in assisted living and nursing-home care.

Out of harm’s way

“I like to say it’s in Bunkie because it’s far enough away and close enough for us to go to,” Plaisance said. “It’s past Baton Rouge. Too many times, the storms have followed us to Baton Rouge. It’s in a very rural setting, and people are very friendly. I hope we never need it, but when you are providing care in the bowl of New Orleans, which is hurricane prone, we have to be able to evacuate 400 people within a moment’s notice.”

The archdiocese purchased the former supermarket, which opened in 1997 but closed in a corporate downsizing in 2005, for $550,000. Retrofitting the building into a ready-to-use medical facility over the next 18 months cost about another $450,000.

It is a fully equipped medical evacuation facility, complete with 400 beds, nursing stations, internet service, communications links, physical therapy equipment and a commercial kitchen to serve hot meals.

“Evacuation for a hurricane is a such a reality, and this center can be used for more than just evacuating for hurricanes,” Plaisance said. “There could be a chemical (spill) issue.”

Having regular beds in place is a boon compared to previous evacuations, Plaisance said, because for Katrina and Gustav the elderly patients were moved to Catholic school gyms in Baton Rouge, where their mattresses were placed on the floor. Most of the beds in the Bunkie facility were freed up when Chateau and Wynhoven replaced their beds in major renovations after Katrina.

With the massive flooding in Katrina, archdiocesan officials had to scramble to place residents in nursing homes across the state. Also, during Gustav, even Baton Rouge was affected by widespread power outages. That’s why the decision was made to look even farther north for a facility.

The open layout of the former grocery store provides an effective way of caring for the patients. The facility greatly reduces the amount and weight of supplies that have to be shipped in case of an evacuation. Instead of requiring three 26-foot trucks to haul mattresses and medical supplies, the evacuation now can be handled with one 16-foot truck. The only equipment shipped will be medication carts and specialized feeding pumps.

Additionally, 18-inch-wide wheelchairs used by airlines to get elderly persons on and off airplanes have been purchased to ease the loading of patients onto buses. Specialized wheelchair ramps have been fabricated to make it easier for rolling patients onto the buses.

One of the facility’s biggest benefits is having rehab equipment in place so that patients can stick as closely as possible to their regular exercise routines.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at


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