Leaders pursue active role in emergency response prep

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lawrence County public officials, law enforcement and fireofficials, industry representatives and private citizens have begunthe process of creating an active Local Emergency PlanningCommittee to better prepare the community should a disasterstrike.

Every county was mandated to have an LEPC by Congress in theEmergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, but fewhave fully complied, said Harrell Neal, manager of the MississippiEmergency Management Agency’s LEPC and hazardous materialsdivision.

“You have one – every county does – but the difference is youdon’t have an active one,” Neal told attendees at a Tuesday nightmeeting at the Lawrence County Emergency Management Office.

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In fact, he said, only 15 of Mississippi’s 82 counties haveactive LEPCs. Lawrence County is the first in MEMA’s District 7,which encompasses all of Southwest Mississippi, to begin theprocess of creating an active LEPC.

Lincoln and Pike counties should be starting the process soon,Neal said.

The task of an LEPC, he said, is prepare the community for howto respond in the event of a disaster. The local committeesidentify potential sites for hazardous material contamination in acounty, amass information on the materials in use, make acontingency plan to respond in the event of an accidental releaseand forge a link between the government and industries todistribute prevention and response information to the public bothprior to and during an emergency.

Every community has hazardous materials sites, whether thesource is an industry that uses hazardous materials in theproduction process or simply well-traveled roads that are used totransport the dangerous chemicals, Neal said.

“Some you know about, but I guarantee there are some you don’tknow about,” he said.

The Lawrence County LEPC is still in the early stages, Nealsaid. Officials have identified the need to create one and haverecruited some members to serve on the committee. The next step isto establish the committee’s bylaws and assign offices.

“(Hurricane) Katrina showed us we can do this, but we have tostay involved and active,” said Robert Patterson, the county’semergency management director.

The LEPC’s formation is being funded by a MEMA grant, Neal said.Lawrence County was one of only eight in the state that receivedthe grant in 2006 to begin the program.

The grants are not easy to obtain, he said.

“First, you have to have an emergency management director thatis active, who is concerned about his community and who shows thenecessary enthusiasm to undertake this program,” Neal said.

The LEPC program received a needed boost and renewed emphasisfollowing the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and thePentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Neal said. Federal mandates issuedafter the attack require the nation, states and each county orparish to have a detailed and all-encompassing emergency responseplan in place.

The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina last year onlyreinforced the need for the mandates in Mississippi, Neal said.

The federal plan is finished, he said, and the state plan isapproximately 75 percent complete.

“Guess who’s next? All the counties,” Neal said.

The county will also be subject to a MEMA-required disasterdrill prior to September 2007, said Joel Langford, an exercisedirector for the agency. The drill is required of counties whetherthey have an active LEPC or not.

“The more you meet, the more effective you will be,” hesaid.