Hattiesburg sees regional role grow in storm’s aftermath

by For the MBJ

Published: August 27,2007

Known as “The Hub City,” Hattiesburg is truly a hub when it comes to evacuation routes. All evacuation routes from Florida, Alabama, the Mississippi Gulf Coast and even New Orleans funnel through the busy college town.

Located just 70 miles inland, Hattiesburg didn’t see the full brunt of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, but it did experience extensive damage.

“I believe every traffic light and stop sign in the city was damaged or destroyed,” says Beth Taylor of Letter B Productions. “I’ve seen this city go from devastation to being one of the most prepared cities in the South.”

‘Comprehensive approach’

John Brown is the public relations coordinator for the city.

“We’ve taken a comprehensive approach in preparing for hurricane season,” he says. “We’ve prepared both in our area of influence, as well as with the private sector.”

An example of that is Forrest General Hospital. Without power for more than 72 hours following Katrina, Forrest General is now equipped with state-of-the-art generators and its own water tower.

“We worked with the hospital staff on that when it came to adhering to city ordinances and such,” Brown says.

Wayne Landers, public safety director of Forrest General, says that Katrina really redefined preparedness. “Prior to Katrina, we thought we were pretty well prepared for anything. Instead, we went 78 hours with no water or electricity.”

Landers says that despite having two rented generators outside after Katrina, the two in-house generators failed under the load, and the outside generators didn’t kick in. “We have replaced our two 750-kw generators with two 1000 kw, and we’ve built an external generator plant that will produce 7.5 megawatts of power, which is more than enough to run our entire facility.”

Around town

Improvements throughout the city began with communication with different agencies.

“We really spent time listening to everyone and put a plan into place that will help us be more prepared in the future,” explains Brown. “We’ve improved our both our internal and external communication systems, including cellular service and satellite phones. One of the major purchases we made was generators. We’ve spent over $1 million for generators for critical areas such as community centers, the City Hall communications center and the water plant.”

Both private and non-profit organizations have made major upgrades. The Red Cross of South Central Mississippi has served eight Mississippi Counties for the past 89 years. Since Katrina, it has become a regional response and staging area servicing all areas from Hattiesburg to the Coast, as well as areas of Florida, Alabama and Louisiana. Janice Vannetta serves as director of the chapter.

“Katrina caused us to change many things about the way Red Cross operated, both on the national level to the local level,” Vannetta says. “Before Katrina, the closest warehouse was in Atlanta. Now there are warehouses, or ‘disaster field supply centers,’ all along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic coast region. Our chapter is a custodial chapter, which means we have a large supply center. We have 690,000 square feet of non-perishable inventory year round in the old Sunbeam plant. If a hurricane is on the way, we can activate the centers. It’s like flipping a switch, and we match up perishable goods with non-perishable goods and we go into disaster response.”

Businesses giving back, getting ready

Benjamin Teague, vice president of economic development for the Area Development Partnership in Hattiesburg, says that the business community in the area exemplified the governor’s directive to “hitch up your britches.” Teague says businesses in Hattiesburg were extremely generous to the community.

“They knew that by doing so, the community would come back and support them.” An example of the many heroic efforts made was when BAE Systems created an on-site daycare for its employees. “They had power, and were able to go back to work eight days after the hurricane. They brought in daycare workers as well as several washers and dryers so employees could do their laundry. Other plants in the country brought in supplies to donate to the Sheriff’s Department, and teams of people poured in from all over the country to assist the Hattiesburg plant employees with repairing their homes.” Teague says that businesses in the community continue to participate in the recovery efforts as needed.

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