By Emilee Theriot
Christmas is a time to spend with loved ones, a time of giving and a time to make new memories, but for John Boudreaux and the Grand Bayou community, Christmas of 2003 was anything but festive.
As the director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness for Assumption Parish, Boudreaux was the person who received emergency calls for the parish. So to get a call about a brine leak from Dow Chemical, which had been operating in the area since 1956, was normal.
Except it was Christmas Eve. And when he got to the Grand Bayou Dow Chemical facility, water was jetting 20 feet into the air.
“It sounded like a jet engine. It was an ‘oh shit’ moment,” Boudreaux says.
Company representatives first thought it was a brine leak and later deemed it a natural gas leak, Boudreaux says. Natural gas has no smell, so it is difficult for the average person to know if they are in danger and it’s hard to know what’s causing the leak. But Dow Chemical did note that Gulf South had natural gas pipelines in the area.
Boudreaux says he met with Vernon Self, a Gulf South representative, at the site and asked about the cause and the extent of the gas leak. Without an explanation from Self, Boudreaux eventually left the site and instructed Gulf South to call if it got worse.
On Christmas morning, Self called, and Boudreaux returned to the site. Boudreaux’s phone rang again, this time it was Nolan Blanchard, a Grand Bayou resident, calling to say the ground in and around his yard was bubbling. Boudreaux immediately rushed to Blanchard’s home with his air monitoring equipment, and he picked up a slight hint of a lower explosive limit on the monitor.
“This ain’t good,” Boudreaux says he thought to himself.
Boudreaux then called Marty Triche, the president of the Assumption Parish police jury, to inform him that residents needed to evacuate. Boudreaux said he knew it would not be a popular decision, but the safety of the public was his number one concern.
“It was the toughest decision I ever had to make,” Boudreaux says.
Residents were told late Christmas afternoon they had four hours to evacuate. Residents were also notified that Louisiana Highway 70 would be closed at 10 p.m. Arrangements were made to house the residents at a local hotel near the Sunshine Bridge. Twenty-eight residents evacuated to the local hotel.
Tracy Scioneaux, 30 at the time of the gas leak, says she was celebrating Christmas with her family at her mother’s house when a volunteer firefighter friend told them they were planning to evacuate the residents of Grand Bayou.
“My mom always told us something’s going to happen here.” Scioneaux says. “We had to pack up all our food and bring our presents we had just opened and some that we didn’t.”
The evacuation lasted 52 days. Scioneaux says the days were hectic at first. Gulf South plugged rigs into the salt cavern and dug them into the water aquifer to allow gas to escape and reduce the pressure. Gulf South found a crack in a casing that went down to the salt cavern, causing too much pressure.
Boudreaux says he kept the public informed the best he could. At one point there were five state agencies on site: Department of National Resources, Department of Environmental Quality, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Louisiana State Police and the governor’s office. On the local level, there were representatives of the sheriff’s office, OEP and the fire department. Gulf South, Dow Chemical and the various rig companies were also on site.
Boudreaux and company officials briefed the evacuees every evening at the hotel. Scioneaux says Gulf South officials did their best to answer their concerns. Boudreaux adds that while friction between company officials and public officials rose, they all continued to work together to resolve the situation and accommodate the public.
A public meeting was scheduled for Jan. 13, 2004, at the No Problem Raceway lounge. The crowd was so large, makeshift bleachers were erected outside to accommodate the several hundred people that showed up. Public officials also followed up with fliers updating the progress throughout the ordeal.
“They did a really good job on taking care of the people,” Scioneaux says. “They took responsibility.”
Gulf South paid for the evacuees’ food and lodging at the hotel. After a period of time it was agreed by Gulf South and the evacuees that Gulf South would start paying an allowance rather than pay the hotel bill, giving evacuees an option of where to stay.
Scioneaux’s family rented a house in Napoleonville with her brother’s family. Gulf South also paid for people to clean the evacuees’ homes prior to moving back. After moving back to their homes, Scioneaux and her husband, along with all the other Grand Bayou residents, were approached by Gulf South to purchase their home and land.
“The older people didn’t want to leave, but eventually, everyone sold their houses and moved from Grand Bayou,” Scioneaux says. “It was a change of life.”
“We don’t blame the companies because without companies we wouldn’t have a livelihood,” she continues. “But, it was disheartening knowing that on Christmas Day that happened in 2003 and my mom died in 2005, so toward the end of her life this is what we had to go through.”