BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - East Baton Rouge Parish officials are answering the public’s questions about the lack of notifications from them early Wednesday morning (Feb. 12) as a large fire broke out at ExxonMobil.
WAFB’s Lester Duhé spoke with the director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (MOHSEP), who says they felt they didn’t need to send out an alert that everything was okay because the Exxon refinery had already done so.
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However, one woman who lives nearby the plant says she was stuck not knowing what do.
“When you look outside and you see the sky bright as day at 12 o’ clock at night, then you know something has gone wrong,” said Crystal Poray, who lives in north Baton Rouge.
Poray got a call from her sister to look outside her home on Tuesday, Feb. 11 near the Exxon refinery and saw it was on fire. But she didn’t know what she and her children should do.
“There used to be police coming down the street saying shelter in place, close your windows, close your doors until we say otherwise, but there’s no alarm sounding, no police, no intercom, anything,” said Poray.
The fire broke out at around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday night. However, the first alert from Exxon officials didn’t come until 12:20 a.m., nearly an hour later. The city-parish chose not to send out any immediate mass notification like a robocall, even to reassure people they were safe and there was no immediate threat to public safety.
"Families close by, they should have some type of warning letting them know hey, everything's fine, don't panic," said Poray.
Clay Rives, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (MOHSEP) in East Baton Rouge Parish, says ExxonMobil told them they had the fire under control and the company had already reached out to residents living nearby through their own alert system.
"Certainly if someone was not watching television or listening to the radio, they may not have received something," said Rives.
Rives’ office does have the option to send out mass alerts to all residents through their Integrated Public Awareness System (IPAS), or through the Red Stick Ready app.
“To clarify, there was no alert from that Red Stick Ready app that you guys provide?” questioned WAFB’s Lester Duhé.
“No. We didn’t send out anything on Red Stick Ready,” Rives responded. “At the time, we didn’t feel there was a need to have a shelter in place or a shelter set up for anyone in the area because there was no threat."
However, Councilwoman Tara Wicker, whose district borders the facility, says she would’ve liked to have been notified through an alert on her cell phone or via the Red Stick Ready app.
“Any places of communication that we have to get the word out as immediately as possible to citizens we just have to do that, so if there’s phone calls coming from Exxon, city-parish, from any and everybody to make sure folks are aware of what’s going on, that’s critical and that needs to happen,” said Councilwoman Wicker.
"The way that happened last night, we shouldn't have to get it through social media that something happened, really walking distance from my home," said Poray.
Rives says after every incident in the parish, his office reviews how they handled the situation. He says his office will be looking at ways they could have handled this Exxon fire more efficiently as well.
Mayor Broome’s Office did send WAFB a statement Tuesday on the incident:
“In the event of an evacuation or shelter-in-place order, we have several ways of communicating with the public including our Integrated Public Alert Warning System which notifies the public through phone calls and text messages. Our Baton Rouge Fire Department Hazmat Team never detected off-site air quality issues that would warrant such action. Throughout the night, our Baton Rouge Fire Department did conduct extensive interviews with local media notifying the public of the specifics of the situation. According to ExxonMobil, they also contacted the public within a 1.5-mile radius through its Community Dialogue Group and notified residents enrolled in their automatic text message alert system. As with every incident, we will do an After Action Report to evaluate our response and public notification.”