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Katrina recovery, other weather disasters make news

There was certainly variety in the state’s weather disasters in 2008, making them top news stories for the year. River flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, ice, sleet and snow visited the Magnolia State causing suffering and loss of property and business.

“We had a fairly wide range of weather events this year,” said Mike Womack, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). “We had flooding on the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, tornadoes, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike and most recently snow, ice and sleet along with high winds and tornadoes.”

Responding to these natural disasters while the recovery from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina continued stretched MEMA’s 250 employees. Womack lists Hurricane Gustav ($6 million) as the state’s costliest disaster this year, based on federal numbers from the September storm.

“It was the most difficult to prepare for and respond to because of the continuing recovery from Katrina. There are still 5,000 to 6,000 families living in temporary housing,” he said. “We had to use the National Guard to go door to door to evacuate these residents. Also, it was the first time we used school buses to evacuate people, and we supported the traffic contra flow from New Orleans.”

All in all, Womack describes the huge evacuation from the Coast and New Orleans as an amazing feat. ”I don’t think people realize how many people were evacuated,” he says. “I’m extremely pleased with everyone involved and the way it went. Not only were these people evacuated, but housing was provided too.”

Last spring’s flooding on the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers carried a price tag of $1.5 million and 663 families requested assistance. The tornadoes that ripped through Jackson and Hinds County in April caused $500,000 in damages.

“Mississippi is very susceptible to severe weather,” Womack said. “Conditions were pretty calm between Hurricane Katrina and this year, but 2008 was more typical of our weather.”

Providing electricity to more than 433,000 customers in 45 counties, Entergy Mississippi’s infrastructure and its customers were affected by the year’s tornadoes, hurricanes, ice and snow. The April 4 storm left nearly one-quarter of the company’s customers throughout Central Mississippi without power, making it the utility’s worst weather disaster in its history, except for Katrina.

“The most severe storm damage was concentrated in metro Jackson neighborhoods where violent winds took down giant trees and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes in a matter of minutes,” said spokeswoman Mara Hartmann. “Very quickly, Entergy Mississippi mustered the largest workforce ever assembled for an emergency restoration effort in the Jackson area.

“Not only did we have our own crews from around the state, we also were assisted by crews from Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. The restoration effort involved more than 1,500 employee and contract support personnel and took five days.”

With an estimated cost between $13.7 and $16.6 million, this storm was also the costliest event for Entergy in 2008. Some 94,000 customers were without power.

“Damage to the company’s infrastructure was tremendous and miles of downed power lines created an extremely dangerous situation for the public and our crews,” Hartmann said. “Hurricane Gustav was also challenging and left nearly 40,000 customers without power, primarily in the southwest portion of the state. Much of the damage was in heavily wooded, rural areas, making restoration difficult.”

In a year of dramatic weather, the state’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina remained a large part of the news for 2008. The City of Biloxi is at the center of that effort where Mayor A.J. Holloway says some areas will never be the same as they were prior to the devastating storm.

“That’s due to the cost of construction because of elevation and the cost of insurance, if you can get it in some of the low-lying areas of the city,” he said. “Overall, I think we’re holding our own. We’re issuing permits of about $4 million in valuation in an average week. That’s residential and commercial, and that’s a good bit of construction.”

He says the construction activity is throughout the city, including a sprinkling of new restaurants, hotels, specialty shops and convenience stores on the beach front.

“As far as the public improvement projects, I’m pleased with the progress we’re making,” he added. “We’re using federal and state money, and we’re being accountable and getting approvals for the decisions we make and how we spend that money.”

Still, Holloway notes that the high cost of insurance is hampering efforts. “The very thing that makes our city so attractive — being on a peninsula and so close to the water — is handicapping our recovery,” he said. “With insurance costs doubling the cost of a monthly housing payment, it’s going to take time for the market to correct itself.”

Gulf Coast housing director Gerald Blessey says rounds one and two of the area’s long-term housing and small rental programs will break ground on numerous projects in 2009, bringing a significant increase to the much-needed housing supply.

“The big issue is assisting moderate and low-income residents in obtaining financing with the financial crisis and effects of the national economy,” he said. “It’s a double-barrel challenge that will require some creative work.”

Blessey believes the big story in 2009 will be the acceleration of the recovery and the strengthening it will bring to the local economy. “We had a big blow from Katrina and we’ll do better in 2009 than we did in 2008,” he said. “The big story will be how much the recovery offsets the national economy.”

Brian Sanderson, president of the Gulf Coast Business Council, is optimistic about the continuing recovery. “There are many uncertainties and more than our fair share of challenges, but I believe the Mississippi Coast is well positioned to weather this downturn and post some surprising positive headlines in 2009,” he said. “Everyone in South Mississippi knows recovery is a daily effort.”

He anticipates revenue growth and confidence in the region’s economy in the number of commercial construction contracts underway. Incentives from the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act and the state tourism project tax will continue to give the Coast advantages and buoyancy during the national dip.

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

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