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Memo from MEMA: plan, review, prepare for hurricanes now

June 1 looms on the calendars as the beginning of hurricane season. The 2006 and 2007 seasons were blessedly quiet following the horrors of the 2005 season, and as the 2008 season approaches officials and Coast residents hope for another uneventful year.

The message from emergency officials can be summed up in a few words: plan, review and prepare now. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) has its hands full with tornadoes and river flooding throughout the state, but is also preparing for the hurricane season. According to assistant director Lea Stokes, the agency held a statewide hurricane exercise and seminar in early May to train emergency workers and inform statewide officials.

“The exercise went well,” she said. “We have a lot of new agency heads and statewide elected officials. It will be the first hurricane season for some, so it was their time to ask questions.”

Although Stokes says MEMA never wants to say it is ready for a disaster, the agency feels it is ready despite decreasing resources on the Coast. “The past two years, we’ve had lots of resources on the Coast, but there won’t be as much this year. The federal government’s presence is shrinking, and our pre-disaster contracts may be strained. The number of FEMA employees has gone down,” she said.

Harrison County disaster director Rupert Lacy fears the two quiet years since Katrina may have put hurricane preparedness on the back burners of residents’ brains.

“Practice makes perfect,” he said, “and the more threats we have, the more it’s on our minds. But, if we live in coastal communities, we need to prepare for tropical storms and hurricanes.”

Lacy, whose disaster experience goes back to 1978, says his agency is re-checking programs and plans and meeting with its emergency partners.

“Harrison County has always had an active plan, but we’re dusting it off and making sure everything is ready,” he said. “More infrastructure is in place and the shelters of last resort are ready.”

One new four-lane evacuation route opened up with the ribbon cutting of Mississippi 67 connecting Biloxi with U.S. 49 in northern Harrison County. “It still ends up putting traffic on Highway 49,” Lacy said. “There is only one major route going north.”

His advice to home and business owners is to review insurance policies now and get documentation together. “Do it electronically, scan it, put it on a disk and take it with you,” he said. “Have documents ready for paperwork.”

Preparations for the season are underway at Edgewater Mall in Biloxi. “We have an updated plan so everyone knows what they’re supposed to do,” said marketing director Michelle Rogers. “Everyone has a role. Each mall tenant has a plan, too, but the mall administration sets the standard for closing due to a storm. Overall, the stores comply.”

AT&T spokeswoman Sue Sperry officers advice to maximize service during and after a hurricane.

“During an emergency, more people are trying to use their phones at the same time,” she said. “The increased calling volume may create network congestion, leading to ‘fast busy’ signals on your wireless phone or a slow dial tone on your landline phone. If this happens, hang up, wait several seconds and then try the call again. This allows your original call data to clear the network before you try again.”

Sperry also suggests using wireless text/short messaging service during an emergency situation because these often will go through quicker than voice calls. And, keep non-emergency calls to a minimum, limiting calls to the most important ones.

Stokes says it’s important for businesses to have a plan, but, more importantly, they should know the situations of all their employees. “Those of us who went through Katrina know employees are the most important part of a business,” she said. “Talk to employees and find out who has special needs and can’t wait until the last minute to evacuate.”

Katrina exposed the weaknesses of the mall’s plan, and since 2005 the shopping facility has been better prepared, Rogers said. “We changed the way we secure our fuel supply because that was an issue after Katrina, and we will be prepared for that this year,” she said. “We’ve corrected our weaknesses and reinforced what we’re doing right. Without a doubt, we’re ready.”

With the recent re-opening of the renovated Dillard’s Department Store, all mall tenants are back, and there are a few new tenants who will be going through their first hurricane season.

“The new tenants will get more attention to make sure they’re ready and have all the information they need such as security numbers and an emergency plan,” Rogers said. “The opening of Dillard’s with their location fronting on the beach and Highway 90 has changed the perception of the mall, showing that everything is open.”

She said Dillard’s and JCPenney took the opportunity of the closing to renovate and upgrade their stores. The mall did ,too, laying a new, $1.5-million marble, tile and granite floor in the common areas.

Lacy says communications are improved along the Coast with beefed up cell phone towers and elevated generators, a lesson learned when Katrina put generators under water. The wireless companies also have portable towers that can be brought in.

AT&T corporate communications released some tips for small businesses to prepare for hurricanes. Those tips include:

• Set up a call-forwarding service to a predetermined backup location.

• Protect hardware/software/data records/employee records, etc.

• Outline detailed plans for evacuation and shelter-in-place plans.

• Assemble a crisis-management team and coordinate efforts with neighboring businesses and building management.

AT&T spokeswoman Sue Sperry also provides advice to maximize service during and after a hurricane.

“During an emergency, more people are trying to use their phones at the same time,” she said. “The increased calling volume may create network congestion, leading to ‘fast busy’ signals on your wireless phone or a slow dial tone on your landline phone. If this happens, hang up, wait several seconds and then try the call again. This allows your original call data to clear the network before you try again.”

Sperry also suggests using wireless text/short messaging service during an emergency situation because these often will go through quicker than voice calls. And, keep non-emergency calls to a minimum, limiting calls to the most important ones.

“If there is severe weather, chances are many people will be attempting to place calls to loved ones, friends and business associates,” she said.

Stokes says it’s important for businesses to have a plan, but, more importantly, they should know the situations of all their employees. “Those of us who went through Katrina know employees are the most important part of a business,” she said. “Talk to employees and find out who has special needs and can’t wait until the last minute to evacuate.”
She also stresses that the area has a number of construction workers who have not been through hurricanes as well as some who do not speak English. “It’s all our responsibility to make sure everyone is prepared for hurricane season,” she added.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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