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Louisiana State Fire Marshal On Aftermath Of Hurricane Laura

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana last night as a Category 4 storm bringing catastrophic winds, flash flooding and a huge storm surge. Though the storm has weakened since then, damage to the southern part of the state is extensive, and the danger is not yet over. Joining us now is Louisiana State Fire Marshal Butch Browning. Welcome.

BUTCH BROWNING: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So just tell me what you're learning so far about Laura's impact on Louisiana.

BROWNING: So Laura's impact thus far - and we're in the very early stages. We're still doing preliminary search and rescue. But in the early stages, we found significant damage from southwest Louisiana, Lake Charles North and damages into Shreveport, La., which is far north in Louisiana. So, you know, we're working really hard right now with our local OEP directors, police chiefs, fire chiefs and first responders to integrate state resources to complete search and rescue. Right now, we have not had any significant search and rescue incidences. However, building damage is catastrophic in a lot of areas. We're noticing a lot of debris, a lot of road blockage, a massive power outage. One of the things is that it does appear that a lot of people did evacuate as they were asked to as part of the planning and response programs.

CHANG: Well, I understand near Lake Charles, Interstate 10 is closed because of a chemical fire in the area. Residents have been told - the ones who are still not evacuated are told to stay inside. What do you know about what happened there?

BROWNING: We don't know the cause of this fire. It's still active right now. However, what we have done - the governor has ordered to shelter in place, which means people who live in that proximity are asked to stay inside their homes and not go out. This burning chemical is emitting a chlorine off-gas. And, of course, we know what chlorine gas is. It's an inhalation hazard. So the plan has been - we've brought in a private contractor, US Fire Pump, who is going to work to extinguish that fire.

CHANG: All right. So you mentioned that there are extensive power outages at this point. There is a secondary search and rescue effort ongoing. What are the most critical needs at this point in time?

BROWNING: From our periscope as the state fire marshal, we're now looking at the overwhelming emergency calls that our fire service is responding to, the Lake Charles, those area departments, the Sulphur area, up into the northern parishes. They're running a bunch of emergency calls, and it's inhibited by roads being blocked, you know, things being impassable. So, you know, one of the things that we're doing is working to make sure they have enough backfill within their department to have firefighting resources there. Another big challenge is the city of Lake Charles, as well as the city of Sulphur, whose water systems are not working right now. So to complicate hospitals and critical infrastructure that doesn't have water when there is a fire, that creates a problem.

CHANG: Absolutely.

BROWNING: So through the mutual aid agreements, they're bringing in outside departments. You have fire trucks that carry large amounts of water, water tankers and they're being deployed to assist when we have fires. So, you know, it's just a lot of things that you normally, you know, have that's just not there. Now, look, we've learned this through many other disasters and many other storms and we predict for this. But it certainly doesn't make it easy when you don't have those protection equipment and protection like fire watering (ph).

CHANG: So as you say, I mean, this is a state that is no stranger to catastrophic storms. It's hard to think about hurricanes in Louisiana without thinking about Katrina. It has been 15 years since Katrina. How does Laura compare?

BROWNING: Well, I mean, I will tell you, in my 35 years of doing this job, I was a fire chief during Hurricane Katrina, and it was certainly the most devastating from the standpoint of loss of life. But I'll tell you, we've learned a lot since Hurricane Katrina and the state of Louisiana with its local governments and with its federal governments, we work much better together. We plan better together. We have better contingencies. We have better equipment. So we manage incidences much better. So today, we had a great response, but what I'll tell you is is that I believe that this storm might reach to some of the same level of damages that Hurricane Katrina did in dollars but with a whole lot less loss of life. But I believe it's because we planned better. We're better organized. Certainly in the fire service, we learned that we needed to be connected from our local fire departments to the state government to the federal government.

CHANG: Louisiana State Fire Marshal Butch Browning, thank you very much for joining us today. And best of luck to you.

BROWNING: OK. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.