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On Capitol Hill, mayor recounts storm

Before a U.S. Senate committee Wednesday, Brookhaven Mayor BobMassengill commended the local response to Hurricane Katrina butalso said improvements are needed for communities to be betterprepared for future disasters.

Massengill was among several speakers who testified before theSenate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, whichis investigating the preparation, response and recovery from theAug. 29 hurricane. He said the hearing went well and he wasimpressed with comments from Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine,about concern and compassion for hurricane victims.

“The committee, for the most part, seemed really interested inwhat we had to say,” said Massengill when contacted this morning inWashington.

During his comments, which were limited to 10 minutes, thefirst-term mayor briefed the panel on the hurricane’s impact on thecity, including property damage, power outages and mostly Louisianaevacuees who were housed at local shelters.

“While Brookhaven was hit harder than ever before and while somein our community suffered a significant loss, most of us weremerely inconvenienced. We soon realized that most of those not farfrom us had their lives changed,” Massengill said in testimonyprepared for the hearing. “Needless to say, I am extremely proud ofthe people of Brookhaven for helping out like we did during thisalmost overwhelming crisis.”

At the peak, Massengill estimated approximately 3,100 evacueeswere staying in Brookhaven either in shelter, motels or with familymembers. He pointed out Red Cross assistance and praised localchurches – both those serving as shelters and ones helping in otherways – and restaurants for their generosity in response toneeds.

Massengill said several hundred trees fell during the storm,with trees landing on 20 to 25 homes. He said about half of thosesustained heavy damage and six to eight were destroyed.

“Brookhaven and Lincoln County, which also sustained a competeloss of power due to fallen trees, were both indeed fortunate asthere were no lives lost nor were there any serious injuries due tothe hurricane,” Massengill said.

Massengill discussed city employees’ tending to water departmentgenerators, which resulted in water never being lost and noboil-water notices, and debris cleanup efforts by the city.Crediting law enforcement, he pointed out there was never a needfor a curfew.

Regarding current and future needs of evacuees remaining atBrookhaven shelters, Massengill said their most pressing physicalneeds have been met through reasonably good accommodations, threemeals a day, cash from the Red Cross and hope of individualassistance from FEMA.

Citing his visits to the shelters and with residents, the mayorsummarized their other concerns. Those include a belief that moreattention is being given to harder-hit areas, a slow response fromthe federal government and a desire to return home of they had acamper or trailer in which to stay while working on their damagedhomes.

“This is their main need and primary request,” Massengill saidabout the temporary housing issue.

For the future, the mayor said proper planning ahead of time,open lines of communication and leadership are key to handling thenext challenge better than the previous one.

Massengill suggested task forces, representing all aspects ofemergency response, be formed throughout the country to developpreparedness plans. He said it would be better to have a plan andnot need it than to need a plan and not have one.

“There will either be another natural disaster and there will bea need, or there will be some kind of attack and there will be aneed,” Massengill said.