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State still beefing up emergency preparedness

Hurricane Katrina’s lessons are still fresh 

While the State of Mississippi’s response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina generally drew high marks, the storm drove home some harsh lessons about disaster preparedness. Keeping the public informed about potential storms and directing first responders to areas of need, improving the flow of traffic in the event of a mass evacuation and providing emergency shelter to evacuees as well as locals are just a few of the areas identified as key to preventing the chaos seen in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 hurricane.

Those areas of concern continue to be addressed. Just within the last few months, several projects have been either started or completed that should put the state and its citizens in better stead when disaster strikes.

“We in government know we can most effectively respond by being well organized and coordinating efforts,” Mike Womack, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), told the MBJ. “Working together, we can achieve the greatest results.”

Coordinating efforts and disseminating information during a natural disaster have gotten a boost of late. In early June, NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County cut the ribbon on its new Emergency Operations Center (EOC). A major employer, Stennis director Gene Goldman said the 78,688-square-foot facility is state-of-the-art and represents a giant leap forward in emergency operations and response capabilities.

“With the new EOC, we can more effectively account for employees, preserve our communications with the outside world, respond more rapidly to site-wide emergencies and more comprehensively manage all of our emergency response personnel in one location,” he said.

As important to Hancock County, “ground zero” for Katrina, a federal grant totaling $1.5 million was awarded earlier this month from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the construction of a new EOC in Kiln. The grant spurs the $2-million project that would build the 11,250-square-foot facility in two phases. (The grant requires a match of $500,000 in non-federal funding.) When complete, it will accommodate 75 emergency command staff and other essential personnel. 

The state’s capacity to shelter evacuees has also gotten some federal aid recently. This includes FEMA’s approval of MEMA’s recommendation to assist the City of Ocean Springs in constructing a multipurpose shelter center. MEMA will provide more than $4 million toward the $5.4-million, 27,000-square-foot building. The facility would have the capacity to accommodate 2,000 people for up to 36 hours.

Another FEMA grant was awarded to Jackson County to build two, 10,000-square-foot shelters, one in the eastern part of the county and the other in the west. A 25 percent non-federal contribution is required.

Getting evacuees to safety was a major issue during and immediately after Katrina, and several significant projects have recently been completed to address this. Earlier this month, the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) opened the Traffic Management Center (TMC) in the District Six Headquarters Building in Hattiesburg. Part of MDOT’s intelligent transportation system, TMC personnel can view live video from 18 traffic monitoring cameras installed in the area. (More cameras are planned, according to MDOT.) They then can send pertinent information to the public via www.traffic.com.

The TMC will also be a part of MDOT’s EOC, which is activated during severe weather or other emergency situations.

“The newly activated intelligent transportation system component will not only improve traffic operations on a day-to-day basis, but will play a critical role in managing emergency situations such as evacuations associated with hurricanes,” said Steve Twedt, MDOT District Six engineer. “The system will communicate important information to local and state agencies as well as the general public through traffic advisories.”

Evacuating those with special needs was a challenge during and after Katrina. To this end, Mississippi last July deployed AmbuBus from First Lie Technology. AmbuBus can convert school and transit buses into non-ambulatory (stretcher) transport vehicles. This will enable the Mississippi State Department of Health to evacuate hospitals, medical facilities and nursing homes from the path of hurricanes. One evacuations are completed, the buses can be retrofitted back to their normal use, and the AmbuBus kits can be warehoused for future use.

Keeping the public informed during and after disasters proved a major hurdle in 2005, and MEMA has launched initiatives to improve communication with the public. The latest endeavor incorporates new social networking tools.

Earlier this year, MEMA launched a YouTube page, a Twitter account and Facebook pages. MEMA has posted public service announcements about storm preparedness on YouTube featuring Gov. Haley Barbour and former New Orleans Saints running back Deuce McAllister.

In June, MEMA reported more than 400 followers on Twitter, and the number was steadily growing.

MEMA also posts hurricane awareness information through the Mississippi Emergency Management Facebook group as well as the Facebook fan group.

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