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Storm offers lesson on need for improved emergency plan

A year after the devastating power of Hurricane Katrina floodedLincoln County with evacuees, knocked out power for weeks anddestroyed homes and businesses, county officials have assessedtheir disaster response and hope to be better prepared in the eventof another natural disaster.

It wasn’t that the county was unprepared, but that its emergencyresponse plan had never been tested to the degree it was on Aug.29, 2005, said Clifford Galey, Brookhaven-Lincoln County CivilDefense director.

“Pre-Katrina, we all thought we had a plan in place that wouldwork, but we had never seen anything of this magnitude,” he said.”Our ice, water and meal distribution plan had never been trieduntil Katrina. We learned some things that needed to be changed,not only at the local level but as high as the federal level.”

However, Lincoln County was able to respond much more quicklyand efficiently to many of the problems caused by the storm than inmany areas of the state, Galey said.

The storm caused a countywide power outage that lasted for threeweeks in some areas, but emergency services had generators runningat most key locations within 24 hours. One key area for generatorswas communications for emergency personnel.

“Here locally, we kept up pretty well with communications. Ourmain problem was communicating with the outside world,” Galeysaid.

However, local communications is still a target area forimprovement, he said. Local agencies were able to coordinateefforts during and immediately following the storm only because adisaster command post was established and manned by arepresentative from each agency with the authority to make rapiddecisions.

The county is working toward a solution that would allow alllocal emergency personnel to communicate directly on sharedfrequencies.

“We’re in the process of upgrading the police department systemto get them on highband. Once we get that done, all of our localservices can communicate on highband with the exception of the(Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol),” Galey said.

The biggest challenge facing emergency personnel in the daysfollowing the storm was clearing roads for travel and restoringpower, he said.

“A lot of people had some home damage, but more people wereaffected by the power being out than anything else,” Galeysaid.

Many people were blocked in at their homes or could not get tojobs because of downed trees and power lines. They were uncertaindays because with telephone lines and cellular towers also downthere was a severe lack of communication outside of emergencychannels.

The priority for emergency crews, however, was not cuttingpeople free to pursue their daily routines, but to ensure emergencyaccess to all areas of the county, Galey said.

“The starting point in clearing roads is to get everything wideenough to get a fire truck or an ambulance through,” he said. “Thenyou can go back and try to clear the whole road.”

The most memorable social impact of Katrina, Galey said, was thesense of unity that emerged following the storm.

“We didn’t have all the problems that some places had,” he said.”There were no shootings in the gas lines or excessive looting. Weall worked together to solve the problems. And they were prettyfrustrating at times.”

Nowhere was that sense of unity more apparent than among themany volunteers who took to the roads with chainsaws in hand tofree storm victims from their homes and open up roads, or those whoflocked to provide whatever aid they could to shelters that openedto provide refuge to coastal evacuees, Galey said.

“They were not only helping our people, but we had a largenumber of evacuees they were assisting,” he said.

Rescue and recovery operations, and the severe demand for basicnecessities such as food, water and gasoline, were hampered notonly by unexpected lapses in the local emergency plan, but alsobecause most of the general public was not properly prepared forthe devastation.

“I’m not sure that people were ready for what we got,” Galeysaid. “The public did not expect it to be that severe this far inand just didn’t lay in the supplies they would need to be isolatedfor an extended period.”

It was another lesson learned from the storm, he said. Prior toKatrina, emergency officials recommended residents to stockpile asupply of needed items sufficient for three days of isolation inthe event of a disaster with the potential of crippling thecounty.

“Now we’re telling them to be prepared for five to seven days,”Galey said.

Within a week, he said, emergency services should be able tobring in the help they need to restore a minimum of basic servicesto a majority of the county.

Rural areas, however, may want to take those preparationsfurther. Some areas not vital to restoring a degree of normalcy tothe county, such as emergency and retail services, did not receivepower for nearly three weeks as utility companies had to prioritizerepairs.

“I hope that individuals who did have a plan in place adjustedtheirs based on what happened during Katrina and those who didn’thave a plan now have one in place,” he said.

The civil defense director said he believes more people remainaware today of storm warnings than they did last year.