Officials say community now better prepared

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Hurricane Katrina struck Mississippi and Louisiana two years agotoday with a devastating punch that still has many communitiesreeling.

Striking farther inland than any hurricane in history, Katrinaovershadowed the devastating effects of Camille 46 years earlier,and caught much of Mississippi’s interior unprepared for thebuffeting winds and flooding rains.

Although Brookhaven and Lincoln County officials cannot say thecommunity would suffer less damage in a disaster of similar scope,they can attest they are much now more ready to respond.

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“When we got hit by Katrina, we had a weekend to prepare and weweren’t really ready. No one expected it to be that bad this farinland. Now, we’re prepared,” said Brookhaven Mayor Bob Massengill.”I think we were fortunate it was no worse than it was. I hope wenever have another one, but I believe we’re better prepared.”

The county was blessed to have leadership at all levels whobelieved in working together to face the crisis, he said.

City and county officials, emergency leaders and others in keylocal industries like Entergy that assisted in the response metdaily to brief the others on their efforts and to plan the nextmove. The meetings set a precedent that would be repeated in theevent of another disaster, the mayor said.

“We handled the cleanup following Katrina in a professionalmanner,” Massengill said. “For the first several weeks we, the cityand county, handled it ourselves. I think we put forward a realeffort for our residents so the real effects were minimized as muchas possible.”

In the aftermath, the city nursed aging power generators to keepwater pumps operating. The city may not have had food, fuel, poweror telephones, but they could drink warm water and bathe.

Those generators have since been replaced with new ones,Massengill said.

“We’re able to ensure people will still have water even if wedon’t have power,” he said.

In addition, one of the old generators was mounted on a trailerfor use at sewage lift stations to manage waste during a long poweroutage. The generator will circulate among the lifts as necessaryto prevent a backup of sewage.

Police Chief Pap Henderson has also pursued and received a grantfrom the Department of Homeland Security for more than $200,000 inemergency equipment to assist in the aftermath of a disaster.

It was the teamwork displayed by city and county crews,emergency personnel and even volunteers to clear roads and supplywater and food during a power outage that stretched from eitherdays to three weeks in some areas that eventually turned the tide,however. Remote areas saw telephone service restored even later asthe entire network had to be rebuilt nearly from scratch.

Eventually, federal contractors took over the job of removingdebris from beside roadways where local crews had piled it hastilyin their efforts to provide mobility to residents.

Today, there are few major lingering effects from Katrina’swrath in the local area, said Cliff Brumfield, executive vicepresident of the Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce.

“There is very little sustained evidence of the hurricane’sinfluence in our local business sector,” he said. “We did realize astrong increase in retail sales immediately following thehurricane, which provided record sales tax income to the city for atime. Those record sales are gone, but numerous months have shownus to be continually stronger than before the storm.”

In some ways, Brumfield said, the county benefited from thestorm.

“You hate to profit off others’ miseries, but the stormdefinitely brought new retail activity and families to our area,”he said. “The business activity has, for the most part, gone backto normal, but a number of families have chosen to stay and makeBrookhaven their home.”

The stronger sales are generally accounted for by a slightpopulation increase from evacuees who chose to remain here andcontinued rebuilding on the Gulf Coast, he said.

Massengill said studies by the Department of Homeland Securityand the Federal Emergency Management Agency placed the number ofevacuees in Lincoln County immediately following the storm at 2,200to 2,500.

The latest study, dated July 31, 2006, showed that 1,307evacuees from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and 595 from Louisianacontinued to make Brookhaven their home, he said.

“I can’t answer how many of those are still here, but many ofthem did (stay). We all notice there is more traffic in thecommunity now than there was two years ago,” Massengill said.”We’re glad they chose to make Brookhaven their home.”

Brumfield added that many of those who stayed filled importantniches in the local business community.

Despite early optimism fueled by the sheer amount of damage onthe Gulf Coast, he said closer scrutiny showed there really wasn’tmuch opportunity to land manufacturing industries in LincolnCounty.

“Coastal areas are not typically hot beds of activity formanufacturers and there weren’t that many looking to relocate,”Brumfield said. “A small number of retail businesses also relocatedto Brookhaven, but we did not see the relocation of anymanufacturing industry, but neither did any other SouthwestMississippi community.”

The community did land a few relocating small businesses,however. He cited downtown businesses Bargains and More and Alphaand Omega Interior Design as examples of coastal establishmentsthat now call Brookhaven home.

The rebuilding effort on the Gulf Coast has also contributedimmensely to the local economy, he said.

“We have not seen rebuilding to the level that was anticipated,but a tremendous increase in new home construction in the NorthShore area (of New Orleans) is still spurring some supply saleshere,” Brumfield said.

The city’s recent annexation will make it more difficult todetermine the storm’s continued impact on the community, hesaid.

“Naturally, the annexation will raise sales tax numbers in thecoming months, making it difficult after that to track the storm’simpact,” Brumfield said.

One lasting impact of the storm, Massengill said, is the boostof volunteerism it engendered in the public. Mississippi has longbeen known nationally for its philanthropic spirit and LincolnCounty continues to prove its a reputation well-earned.

Not only did area churches open their doors to shelter evacueesin the aftermath of the storm, he said, but many of them are stillsending volunteer teams to the Mississippi Gulf Coast “to helprebuild homes and lives.”

“If there’s a lasting effect from the storm, it’s one of hope,”Massengill said. “If we can get through that, then we can getthrough anything by working together.”