Wicker hears officials’ concerns

Published 5:00 am Thursday, September 4, 2008

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker said the state has improved in itsdisaster response capabilities Wednesday afternoon after inspectingHurricane Gustav damage in four Southwest Mississippi counties.

“Our agencies and local government have done remarkably well andare better prepared,” Wicker said while visiting Franklin Countyworkers on a muddy road outside of Meadville. “This is the kind ofpractice you don’t want to have, but practice is what makes youprepared.”

On the second day of his damage tour, Wicker said 24 hours hadmade a noticeable difference in the recovery efforts. He said therehave been many improvements since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, butthe system is not yet perfect.

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The purpose of his visit, Wicker said, was to see if there wasany way he could help local officials “cut through the red tape” toget federal and state assistance.

One improvement Wicker would like to make, he said, is in thearea of communications.

“We have been made aware of the need for enhancing ourcommunication by making it interoperable,” Wicker said. “TheMississippi Department of Transportation probably had six forms ofcommunication for a disaster like this. We’re close to gettingeveryone federal assistance for an interoperable communicationssystem.”

During an earlier sit-down meeting with city and countyofficials at the Franklin County Courthouse, Wicker listened tolocal requests, particularly for a generator for the FranklinCounty Memorial Hospital.

FCMH Administrator and Meadville Mayor Sonny Dickey told thesenator that while the hospital did have a backup generator, it wasnot strong enough to power all the hospital systems.

“We can’t perform X-rays or anything like that,” Dickey said.”The town and hospital applied for a grant during Katrina, but wehaven’t heard anything mentioned.”

Wicker said he could be of most help to small communities likeMeadville by searching the numerous federal agencies for grantopportunities that would fund systems like interoperablecommunications and emergency power.

“Often times, Rural Development grants are able to come throughon a case-by-case basis,” he said.

County and city officials also took the opportunity to askWicker about the fate of the Secure Rural Schools and CommunitySelf-Determination Act, a long-standing federal law that allowscounties and municipalities to be funded for the tax revenuepotential lost on national forest lands.

The law has been in jeopardy since it expired last year.

Franklin County, which is practically covered by the HomochittoNational Forest, receives $1.2 million annually from the law. Thesum is split evenly between the county and the Franklin CountySchool District.

Wicker believes the act will be reinstated based on itspopularity.

“I expect this month we’ll be reauthorizing that, and I’d bereal surprised if we didn’t,” he said. “It’s a very popular program- it’s just a matter of ironing out the details.”

With only one month remaining in the federal fiscal year 2008,Wicker said it was important to make sure the act’s distributionsystem is not changed to Mississippi’s disadvantage.