Jillian Rodrigue, Deputy Director for Douglas County Emergency Management, grew up in southern Louisiana in a small town called Berwick, which is nine miles from the Gulf of Mexico. She describes it as Cajun country and an area prone to hurricanes.
In 1992, Rodrigue, who was in second grade at the time, recalled evacuating and heading north with her mother, sister and other family members due to Hurricane Andrew. Her father, who was a first responder at the time, stayed in the area. She recalled being under tornado warnings for hours.
When they returned home, a tree had gone through the roof and ceiling of her house and they didn’t have power. “I was scared that the house was going to collapse. I wasn’t eating or sleeping. I was struggling,” Rodrigue recalled, but noted that in reality the house was completely safe.
A roofing contractor, who was working on fixing their house, could tell that Rodrigue wasn’t doing well, so he asked if she’d like to help with a project, which was picking up nails in the driveway so no one would get a flat tire. “For hours, that’s how I kept myself from worrying about everything else. He gave me a task that I could focus on and I’ve carried that with me ever since then,” Rodrigue said, adding she uses the story in community presentations.
“I feel like my entire life has been molding me to be here,” she said. “I love my job because it’s about the people. It’s about serving your community in their time of greatest need.”
Rodrigue graduated from high school in Berwick, La., and then attended Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., where she was considering a career in social work. During a drive to work, she saw her first tornado and that piqued her interest in weather. She decided to transfer to the University of Louisiana at Monroe because it had a meteorology program.
Following the landfall of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, an Emergency Management team visited the university and brought a mobile response vehicle to help first responders with communications due to a large power outage. This vehicle supported six counties in Mississippi which had no other means of communication after Hurricane Katrina. “That’s when it all clicked and I knew what I wanted to do,” she said. “Emergency Management was the perfect mix of my love of weather and my love of wanting to help people. That’s when it all came together for me.”
In April 2007, after earning a bachelor’s degree in meteorology, Rodrigue was hired by Douglas County Emergency Management as a Planner. Three weeks later, she was deployed to Greensburg, KS, where an EF-5 tornado had caused massive damage. Rodrigue thought she was going to be doing data entry, but instead, she helped build Incident Action Plans - something she had never done before.
Seven months later, in November 2017, she was promoted to Assistant Director and the reality of living in a state with four seasons started to set in. “In Louisiana, everything shuts down when a snowflake falls. We had over 30 inches of snow during my first winter here and I was like, ‘Why did I move here?’” she said, laughing.
Over the years, Rodrigue has fallen in love with the seasons. She likes measuring snowfall and taking pictures of frozen bubbles. She enjoys spring thunderstorms and watching the lighting from a safe place. “I can get real nerdy about clouds,” she said. “Weather has always played a significant role in my life.”
Rodrigue said Emergency Management’s responsibility is to make sure agencies are ready to respond to any disaster or event through planning and training. When the event happens, the Department’s role is to help coordinate the efforts and resources to help residents who are affected. “We get going on people’s worst days generally, but that’s what we’re here for. We hope to plan and never use them.”
One of those days was May 28 of this year when an EF-4 tornado moved across Douglas County, destroying 13 homes and causing damage to 73 homes, two commercial businesses and a home office. “People are still rebuilding and figuring out what that looks like for them,” Rodrigue said. “It’s going to be a long process physically and emotionally. The first tornado drill we did afterward really jarred some people. It’s a healing process.”
She encourages people to seek help if they are struggling. She knows firsthand. “There were many times that I just had to stop on the night of May 28 and in the days and weeks following because all of that emotion came flooding forward and some of it at the most inopportune times. When I walked out to my car that night, I just lost it because that was my community and those were my people underneath that tornado warning.”
Rodrigue added, “Even watching other people’s disasters on television can disrupt your own emotional health.”
In the days, weeks and months following the tornado, Rodrigue has visited with residents impacted by the tornado. “What I love about my job is getting to help people. We keep going when a lot of people stop.”
The Douglas County Emergency Management Department has an annual budget of about $264,000 and three full-time employees and one part-time employee. The department staff is supplemented after hours and during events by two Duty Officers, a Public Information Officer, and two Mobile Command Vehicle Managers.
As Deputy Director, Rodrigue oversees a number of programs, including: operations, volunteers and public education. Operations includes ensuring the Emergency Operations Center, where emergencies are coordinated, and the Mobile Command Vehicle are ready and staff and partner agency representatives understand and are prepared to execute their roles and responsibilities when either is activated for a potential or ongoing disaster or planned event.
Emergency Management also provides a lot of education through community programs, training and preparedness fairs. “We have to know a little about a lot of different things,” she said. Being out in the community is one of her favorite parts of the job.
More importantly, she said it’s about building relationships with partner agencies, so everyone is on the same page and knows who will take the lead on particular items during an incident because of their expertise. “It’s a coordinated effort which includes local, state, federal, private and nonprofit partners and it is effective and efficient. We couldn’t do it alone,” she said.
Rodrigue also oversees the volunteer program which includes three volunteer groups who help Emergency Management: Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), Auxiliary Communications Team (ACT) also known as the amateur radio operators, and SkyWarn which are the storm spotters. Rodrigue, with support from the Volunteer Coordinator (who also serves as a Duty Officer), schedules volunteer training, participation in community preparedness activities, and fulfills requests for support from partner agencies. There are about 40 volunteers and Rodrigue said they played a vital role in Douglas County’s response to this year’s tornado and August 1 flooding event. “They were working long hours and that just speaks volumes about them and their character and willingness to serve. So far this year, they have given over 2,000 hours of service.”
During an Oct. 23 volunteer recognition, Rodrigue received a standing ovation from the volunteers and was also recognized by Douglas County Commissioners. “We would remiss if we didn’t recognize Jillian for her remarkable steady hand in the midst of multiple storms this year and her absolute commitment to the cause which is the health, welfare and safety of our community and the support of all the people who do the work of Emergency Management Services,” Commissioner Nancy Thellman said. “Jillian is a faithful public servant and a rock as well. We greatly appreciate her work and services.”
New Emergency Management Director Robert Bieniecki said, “Having only worked with Jillian for a short period of time, it is clear to me that she is passionate, driven and essential to the success of the Emergency Management program in Douglas County.”
So, what are Rodrigue’s tips for preparedness?
- Talk to your insurance company about what your policy does and does not cover. Verify if you need flood insurance, even if you don’t live in the floodplain.
- Sign up to receive weather and other emergency alerts. While there are many apps you can use, Douglas County offers a free system. Visit http://dgcoks.org/notify to register today!
- Build a preparedness kit with items you may need during or immediately following an emergency. A list of suggested supplies can be found at https://www.ready.gov/kit. Don’t forget your pets.
- Make a Plan for where you will take cover (for severe weather) or if you need to leave your home (fire, flood or other reason to evacuate your home). Include everyone involved. Also, include how you will communicate if you are separated.
“It’s just about being ready if you need it,” she said. “It’s not going to stop the disaster, but planning ahead can take away a little of that anxiety and helps you move toward recovery.”
*Story by Karrey Britt | Communications Specialist for Douglas County