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Womack: MEMA better prepared than ever to handle storms

It’s a busy time for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA).

“I’m very proud of the efforts the staff has made to help residents with all disasters,” said MEMA’s director Mike Womack.

As for hurricanes during this time of marking the third anniversary of Katrina, he says the organization is the best prepared it has ever been at the state level.

“We have additional funds from the legislature to hire staff and buy more commodities,” he said. “All state agencies have more experience and know how to respond. Plus, we have three very experienced, capable emergency managers in the Coast counties who work closely with county officials and with us.”

With the increased state funding, the agency went from 60 to 120 full-time employees and added others with federal funds for a total of 150 employees. One staff member lives in Gulfport with responsibility for all six coastal counties.

“He’s there every day to make sure they have anything they need from the state level,” Womack said.

Additionally, there are 35 to 40 staff members working on recovery efforts from a Biloxi office. They are coordinating local, state and federal efforts and checking the progress of rebuilding plans through federal grant funds that are disbursed through MEMA.

MEMA administers the Mississippi Cottage Program, funded by a $280-million FEMA grant. There are 2,800 families occupying cottages now as local jurisdictions try to determine which ones can become permanent.

Heed warnings

Womack says the largest lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina is that people need to heed the warnings of local emergency officials and know when they need to evacuate.

Communication problems in Katrina’s aftermath have been addressed. Federal monies and some state funds have provided for satellite radio systems, mobile towers and transmitters.

“We in government know we can most effectively respond by being well organized and coordinating efforts. Working together, we can achieve the greatest results,” he said. “For more effective communication, we now have a large amount of community equipment and we have backup equipment we can bring in from outside the Coast.”

The emergency director praised Mississippi Public Broadcasting (MPB) for being great partners during Katrina. MPB remained on the air at MEMA’s emergency center.

“Now, new technology will allow MPB to split up channels, and we can broadcast to people with receivers as long as their towers survive,” he said. “There are a whole series of ways to alert people. That’s the great thing about them. They take seriously their role of emergency alerting and have installed permanent equipment at the Emergency Operations Center.”

MPB executive director Marie Antoon is pleased to partner with MEMA in emergencies with new, specific ways of communicating.

“MEMA can broadcast to every emergency center in the state and make it secure,” she said. “It can even be complex with a crawl of information at the bottom of the screen and evacuation routes on the side.”

Refining the plan

Emergency planning has been ongoing for MEMA with a plan that’s been updated twice since Katrina. The newest version was recently signed by the governor and posted on MEMA’s website. Other state agencies with disaster responsibilities wrote their portions of the plan.

“We have 16 primary emergency functions for all disasters,” Womack said. “Under that, there is support from almost all state agencies that have some responsibility.”

He points out that MEMA focuses its efforts on whatever is the greatest risk, whether that’s earthquake planning for the state’s northern counties or flooding on the Mississippi River.

“We want to make sure everyone knows we have an aggressive program of education and information,” he said. “We want everyone to be aware of what’s going on. Every county has a local emergency director and some cities have them. They are the best source of information for local citizens.”

MEMA’s disaster preparedness plan can be reviewed at www.msema.org.

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


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