The pipe and draping is needed to create sleeping areas for workers. (Courtesy Cajundome)

Arena wants to house emergency workers after Hurricane Laura’s destruction

In the wake of the devastation wrought on the Lake Charles, La., area by Hurricane Laura, the Cajundome & Convention Center in Lafayette, La., is proposing to federal officials that the venue be used to house over 1,000 FEMA and American Red Cross workers facing long commutes to the disaster zone from as far away as New Orleans and Houston.

Cajundome Director Pam DeVille put out a call this week to other venues or anyone else who has used pipe and drape for sale that the venue can use to build 435 10-by-10-foot pods, with three cots each, to be used as sleeping quarters for up to 1,320 emergency workers, some of whom are already commuting to Lake Charles from cities a long drive from where the Category 4 hurricane inflicted much of its damage.

Laura packed sustained winds of nearly 100 mph and gusts around 135 mph when it made landfall at Cameron, La., just south of Lake Charles, on Aug. 27. It has been blamed for at least 24 deaths and nearly $9 billion in damage in the U.S.

Video posted to social media and news sites in the storm’s wake showed severe damage to the Lake Charles Civic Center, the downtown location of the 7,450-seat James E. Sudduth Coliseum and the 2,050-seat Rosa Hart Theatre.

The Cajundome, home to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns men’s and women’s basketball teams, served as an emergency shelter and the convention center as a special needs medical facility in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which caused 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage in August 2005. DeVille, who has been with the Cajundome for 34 years, was on hand at the time of that calamity, when the facility served as an emergency shelter for 90 days, she said.

“We know how to be a shelter, but this is a totally different set of circumstances,” she said. “We had been talking about being a shelter for the residents of Lake Charles, but the state has agreed to pay for hotels for evacuees in lieu of setting up a mega-shelter. They are so worried about COVID and what would happen in a mega-shelter and in the governor’s opinion it would be better to do this.”

A professor at the university who is affiliated with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security approached federal officials and suggested they contact the Cajundome to house workers who will be critical to Lake Charles’ recovery.

“They asked us what we could put together,” DeVille said. “I thought getting pipe and drapes would be a simple process, but obviously it’s not. The people down here that still have it don’t have it in the quantities that we need and they don’t understand the prospect of, if we get this from you, we will hold onto your asset probably until the end of October, maybe the end of November. So, the prices that we’re being quoted were just unbelievable. It’s not even practical; (neither) FEMA nor Red Cross would pay that in addition to the cleaning, the sanitation and all the other expenses that will go into keeping a COVID-free center. So that’s why I got on this mission” of seeking pipe and drape through the network of venue professionals.

DeVille said it will also be tough securing things like shower and bathroom trailers, many of which have already been put to use in the Lake Charles area, which remains without water or power.

“The city is just devastated,” she said.

Officials from FEMA and the Red Cross will be coming to the Cajundome to see the proof of concept being put together and will determine whether it’s practical, safe and cost-effective to house workers at the venue, DeVille said.

Securing the pipe and draping is the immediate challenge, she said.

“What these guys were charging, there’s just no way,” DeVille said. “So, if we have to buy something used, or if somebody’s got extras that they can rent us or loan us, that’s what we’re hoping for.”

Complicating matters is the lack of event revenue that the pandemic has caused, DeVille said, explaining that with normal cash flow the facility was better able to wait the two years it took to be reimbursed after Katrina.

“Like every other venue in America, if we had been doing the events that we should have been doing since March, we’d have the capital dollars to buy these and we would just move on with it, but that isn’t the case right now. We have to be cautious. Funds are tight. Right now, we have six active employees,” compared with a usual head count of 49.

DeVille can be reached at pdeville@cajundome.com.