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MEMA exec: Focus should be on individual preparedness, not governmental response

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.



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  1. Danny Hatcher

    I lived about a block from the water in Biloxi during Katrina- it was devastating. Not ony did you lose everything you had, you lost the land marks, neighbors, loved ones. Everything changed- I walked up to the Biloxi Police Department having law enforcement experience to look for dead people. Nobody knew what to do- they waited. The first to arrive was the churches, the Salvation Army. It was many days until FEMA came they set up camp in North Gulfport but all they did was stop what little bit that was happening. They sent trucks to Stennis Space Center to wait for word. The word never came and those drivers just sat there until most of them left. Many lives could have been saved if there had been better preparation but nodoby could work together. We found a small source of water in the neighborhood and told everyone about it. We would be told to report to a shopping center parking lot for supplies, we’d arrive it was called off, location changed or some mess would occur. Salvation Army would run out of food. The soldiers came and blocked off everything south of the tracks- it was eerie. A curfew- jeeps bringing kentwood water, neighbors houses broken into. I remember seeing a cadillac pull up to a cleaners down the street as I watched with two young blacks jumping out and through the broken plate glass window, they ran out with tuxs and formals and tow elderly caucasion women jumped out and popped the trunk to let them load it up- I told my son “looks like it’s true tragedy brings people together”
    We couldn’t get gas anywhere, law enforcement comandeered several trucks and took over local tanks at former gas stations. They took over the contents of the grocery across the street (for the men). Not hardly any medical help. Stories that would give you PTSD if you just heard them.
    Indiana Highway patrol rear ended an elderly woman that had lost everything and her husband was in the Ocean Springs Hospital in critical condition. She slipped out to go to a garage that had their van, since everything at their house and business had been lost. The van had been raised on a hydraulic llift and the water didn’t get it. This woman pulled up to a red light and got rear ended- the elderly woman in shock of everything jumped out of the vehicle and “acted erratically” the highway patrol broke her collar bone and almost beat her to death. Elderly were left at the nursing home near the gulfport hospital and I went there a day or so after the hurricane by way of garbage truck. THe residents were in shock, didn’t know what had happened, couldn’t process it. All the seafood people had as well as groceries went back, it was stinking. One millions pounds of shrimp wwere dumped in the back bay near D’Iberville. Vietnese who lived in their boats went inland but drowned and nobody knows if they went under or what. People left and you didn’t know where they went, if they went, if they were washed out to sea or at some relatives in Minnesota- no accounting for the true amount of losses. Fema did a poor job- National Guard did a fair job, churches went above and beyond and local municipalities tried to look as good as they could. If you had prescriptions you were out of luck.The story goes on but planning needs to be effective or don’t waste the money. Talking about wasting money I’ll end with this. FEMA was approach by a local land owner and offered a large tract for FEMA trailers for $150,000. They came back with an offer instead of paying $150,00o to buy they would lease it for 18 months for $150,000 a month and the man would retain ownership- they told him “If we don’t use the money, we lose the money” That money could have been used some other way going back into the general fund or whatever.

  2. Mr. Latham is absolutely correct. Prepardness begins in YOUR house. Do not count on outside help for 2-3 days in a major disaster!!!

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