PEARL — After learning valuable lessons from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it’s time to shift focus from governmental response to individual preparedness, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency leaders say.
MEMA executive director Robert Latham Jr., who was reappointed to the position in January after heading MEMA from 2000-2006, said he has been meeting with local officials to discuss concerns about this hurricane season.
Latham oversaw the states preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation during the devastating 2005 storm.
“Since Katrina, most of the conversation has been about, ‘Are we better prepared than we were with Katrina?'” Latham said. “There were a lot of failures during Katrina. I don’t think we’ll repeat those failures. We are better prepared.”
MEMA is now shifting the conversation to focus more on individual, family and community preparedness, he said.
“Ultimately, it’s what people do when we give them information — about evacuating, having communication plans and having evacuation kits — that is actually going to save lives.
“In most cases, when a disaster strikes, the outcome as it relates to loss of life and injuries is really determined before the first firefighter leaves the station or the first EMT leaves,” Latham said.
Latham believes “if we could ever get the public engaged and take an active role in their own preparedness … we can change the outcome.”
“Then it’s just a matter of the government cleaning up the mess,” he said. “We can do that, and we can rebuild.”
Nationwide, disasters are becoming more violent, he said, noting “there is more property damaged and lives lost every year from disasters.”
Changing the community’s mindset, however, is the challenge. That’s where disaster preparedness education for young schoolchildren comes in, Latham said.
MEMA would like to begin a pilot program in several schools that would weave the teaching of disaster preparedness into the normal curriculum.
For example, the program could be similar to the fire services successful campaign about fire prevention, Latham said.
“There’s probably not a child in this country who doesn’t know what ‘stop, drop and roll’ means,” he said.
And children are eager to spark discussions about safety in their homes.
“Adults have trouble learning anything new,” Latham said. “They don’t want to sit down at the dinner table and talk about evacuations and disaster supply kits, and those are the kinds of things we need to start talking about.”
Latham said the state Department of Education seems interested in pursuing a pilot program, which would run for several years and be followed by an assessment to measure its success.
It would be in schools across the state, he said, because Mississippi faces multiple threats, including hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes and even earthquakes.
“There’s just not a part of our state that isn’t vulnerable to something,” he said.
Another challenge for MEMA, Latham said, is battling complacency.
As Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast Aug. 27, 2005, Latham said, people were on the beaches building bonfires. That was a Saturday. On Sunday, after officials compared Katrina to 1969’s Hurricane Camille, there was mass exit that caused traffic jams, confusion and a variety of other problems.
Residents should “take the hint” when emergency response leaders issue voluntary evacuations, Latham said, to avoid complicating an already dangerous situation.
“That’s when we lose lives,” he said, when people wait too long or are too complacent to act.