Looking back on a storied career: Dick Gremillion talks about his years serving as Calcasieu OHSEP director

Published 3:41 pm Sunday, May 26, 2024

Three tornadoes touched down in Calcasieu Parish Monday. For the first time in 28 years, Dick Gremillion watched events unfold on TV from the comfort of home.

“I snuck in a few phone calls to the office,” he admitted.

The Calcasieu Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (OHSEP) director retired earlier this month at the age of 69.

Email newsletter signup

OHSEP is responsible for preparing, responding, managing and supporting the rebuilding of the parish after an event.        

“It’s a cycle,” Gremillion said. “By the time you pick up the pieces, it’s time to start planning again,” he said. In Southwest Louisiana, multiple scenarios in the cycle could be occurring simultaneously, especially the last few years.

In 28 years, there have been 25 presidentially-declared natural disasters in Southwest Louisiana. Most jurisdictions this size have had one every five to 10 years, according to Gremillion.
“Prior to Hurricane Katrina and Rita, there really had not been much activity in our area since Hurricane Audrey,” he said.

Gremillion considered making the 29 or 30-year mark, but the thought of another Hurricane Laura was too much.

“We’re kind of coming out of it now, but for the first two or three years, there was like a pall of sadness over the whole community. It was just too much grief.”

Hurricane Laura, a category 4 cyclone, made landfall at Cameron Parish around 1 a.m. August 27, 2020. It is the strongest hurricane to strike Southwest Louisiana since records began in 1851, according to the National Weather Service. Winds got up to 150 mph. It caused $23.3 billion in damage and 81 deaths. Six weeks later, Hurricane Delta hit. Next came the spring flood.

Laura was different from previous weather disasters in another way.

“Everybody’s houses were torn up, the majority of all of the public safety workers, and it put so much extra stress on people to continue their job and worry about, you know, the roof of my house caving in,” Gremission recalled.

As bad as Laura was, it was a scene after Hurricane Katrina, which hit the New Orleans area in August 2005 that made the biggest impression on Gremillion during his career.      

“They sent us to I-10 and Causeway to transport people out. They didn’t tell us that was where they were dropping off all the helicopter rescue victims. No local authority was there. Gremillion was asked if he’d organize things.

“It was horrible,” he said. “There was a triage area with all these hospital patients just layed out on the interstate. It was very upsetting because you’re thinking, this can’t be happening in the United States.”

He said everything broadcast about Katrina was true – and worse.

“It did strike a resolve in us not to let something like that happen here,” he said.

Little did they realize they would get the chance to put that resolve to the test the following month.

After Gremillion and his crew oversaw the evacuation of Katrina victims to Lake Charles, Hurricane Rita hit. The category 3 blew into        western Cameron Parish just east of the Texas and Louisiana border in the early morning hours of Saturday, September 24, 2005.

The New Orleans evacuees then had to be evacuated from Lake Charles.

“What we thought we were going to do and what we ended up doing were two different things,” Gremillion said. “It was troubling that we had to uproot and separate these people again.”

Hurricane Laura transport brought challenges as well.

As we were loading one of the first buses to go to one of the shelters in North Louisiana, we found out they were going to be redirecting those buses to New Orleans. We ended up with 13,500 people from Calcasieu Parish sheltered basically in hotels in New Orleans.

The added threat of terrorism

Training to prepare for terrorism has always been part of the parish’s emergency preparedness, as was responding to chemical leaks and fires at the areas 40 plants or so. However “homeland security” didn’t become part of the title until after 9/11 in 2001.

“When I think about the morning that happened,, it was just disbelief,” Gremillion said.

Terrorism training was stepped up, and when the department was called to a plant fire three days after 9/11, an FBI agent joined them. All were on high alert.  Was this an act of terrorism right here in Southwest Louisiana? It turned out that it was not.  OHSEP continues to get a briefing from the Fed’s Fusion Center about what’s going on around the world – daily.

If Gremillion had been asked as a boy what he saw himself doing for the rest of his life, he might have said being an officer in the U.S. Air Force. He barely missed the Vietnam War draft.   

The Alexandria native began his career in the insurance industry after graduating from Northwestern University with a business administration degree. Parish administrators Jerry Milner and Mark McMurray hired him for an insurance coordinator job.

“I was in that role for about three months when Mr. Allen, the personnel director, died and Mark asked me to take on that department until he could fill the position,” Gremillion said. That took three years.”

When he was asked to head up the Office of Disaster Preparation, he made sure McMurray knew his way of handling the public and the media would not be like his predecessors.

“Once I was told I should spice up my reports,” he said. He knew adding emotion wasn’t the answer. Gremillion never aspired to be a politician and has no plans for it now, he made clear with a certain choice of words.

Like many people past the age of 50 or so, the last few years seem to have flown by for him.  He didn’t start the job with plans to leave the position after a few years. Nor did he have plans to stay and retire in the role.

He was able to make good, timely decisions, one of the most important aspects of the job. not that he said every decision he ever made was perfect. He discovered that he liked teaching, training and mentoring – and he was able to do something that most people wish they could do, he made a difference.

“If I had the chance to do it all over again, I probably would do the same thing,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to change anything because that would take away from my whole life experience, and that experience has been pretty much positive. I’ve had some failures. Everyone does, but I can say that I really have enjoyed this job.”

He has met two U.S. presidents. He had a one-on-one conversation with Trump after Hurricane Laura. He has talked to virtually every network and was invited by the National Guard several times to help with training.

“You have to remember, it’s not just me. It’s a whole group of people who make this work.”

His only regret is not spending as much time with his family.

“I couldn’t have done this job without my family’s support, he said. “I don’t think anyone could.”

He’s promised his wife Fay, they will not stay when a hurricane is on the way.

He picked his successor, Jared Maze, a combat veteran with practical thinking skills and the ability to make timely decisions.

“Things tend to pile up when you put off making a decision,” he said.