By Butch Weir, Editor, The Poplarville Democrat
The Picayune Item
The Pop-larville area learned valuable lessons in disaster readiness from hurricane Katrina in 2005, and those lessons led to improvements which provide a greater measure of security for local residents.
“We’re prepared, we’re ready,” Poplarville Mayor Billy Spiers, who had already served several terms as mayor when Katrina hit, said. “In the past we weren’t ready; we didn’t have the essential setup.”
Katrina brought to light many preparedness deficiencies, particularly in communication, training, and infrastructure – areas both Spiers and Poplarville Chief of Police Charles Fazende say are now greatly improved.
Fazende said Katrina taught them, first, that no amount of training prepares you for every eventuality, each disaster event is unique. “You just get in there and do the best that you can do.” That storm taught them a lot, he said, so that response to another disaster will be even better.
One important lesson: How to deal with people in stressful situations. Along those same lines, Fazende also praised the response of regular citizens here who didn’t wait for assistance.
“They are ready to help … and you need to be willing to let them help,” which gives his department more resources to draw upon in the event of a disaster.
But, Fazende said the manpower available for handling a catastrophic storm event continues to be an issue. His police force has 12 full time officers and approximately 18 part-time people, pending approval for another six, Fazende said.
“We’d (still) have to get a lot of people in here, and we don’t have a lot of (trained) people to begin with,” he said, “Taxes us to the limit.” Katrina tested that limit. “We worked seven days a week,” Fazende said. “We couldn’t afford to take any days off.”
Fazende said manpower from outside police departments, National Guard units and other agencies during Katrina was vital and greatly appreciated, mentioning the Jacksonville, Fla., police department which contributed manpower and resources, as an example. “They (all) were a God-send. It was greatly appreciated, to this day.”
Fazende says the department continues to train throughout the year and he is confident in the department’s ability to deal with events such as Katrina, now.
Another major issue during and after Katrina was communication, which should be better now, he said. Cell phone communication was very limited during Katrina, but improvements by cell phone companies, such as portable antennas, have greatly improved communication response, Fazende said.
Both Fazende and Spiers said another critical issue during Katrina was power. The city did not have any backup generators and was dependent on battery power but now generators are found at city hall, the fire station and radio repeater sites – as well as other locations.
“Theoretically, we’re not going to experience that problem (with power) again,” Fazende said.
Funds for generators and some other improvements, such as shutters at various city buildings, came through various grants, he said.
Were a storm to threaten the area, Fazende said a command center would be formed and equipment readied. Spiers said even though the county’s Emergency Operations Center near the county fairgrounds, where one of the three county’s new storm shelters is also located, will be the main operations center, the city will have its own command center at the new fire station on Mississippi Highway 53 South near the Middle School of Poplarville.
A portion of that structure is a reinforced safe room that can double as a command focal point, Spiers said.
The city will have a representative at the EOC to help coordinate communications and operations with the county and other agencies, Spiers said, noting that city and county emergency cooperation has worked really well in the past. In an actual impending emergency, such as a hurricane, the city’s police, fire and maintenance will coordinate with the county EOC to organize potential responses.
Once the immediate danger is past, Spiers said city hall, which has its own generator backup, will be opened.
Spiers said the city has six backup generators to supply electricity: in addition to those already mentioned there is one at the city maintenance garage, one each at the two water wells, and another at the water treatment facility adjacent to the city lake by Mississippi Highway 26. The well generators are designed to immediately switch on if the power is interrupted because if those wells go down there is no water, he said.
The city’s generators are diesel-powered and the city has a 72-hour fuel supply, with agreements with several local sources to hold a certain amount of fuel in reserve. Spiers also said there are fuel resources from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
During an actual weather event, emergency responders will remain out until such time as conditions are not safe, Spiers said, and that the fire department in the past has done regular street assessments on the hour. While there have been times during severe weather events where police and fire personnel have responded to citizen needs, Spiers said citizens do need to be prepared to hold until “the worst gets over with.”
When wind speeds have subsided sufficiently, personnel will begin patrols and damage assessments, he said, but added that FEMA and MEMA response cannot begin until Mississippi’s governor makes an emergency declaration.
Spiers said one problem that surfaced after Katrina was with “scalpers,” people attempting to illegally take advantage of the emergency for financial gain. “We’ll do a little bit better job (policing that) next time, I hope,” he said. “There were so many people … coming in and cleaning yards up, it’s terrible (taking advantage of an emergency).”
He said now anyone selling such services will have to register at city hall first. If they don’t and are caught doing work, they will be asked to leave.
An important disaster asset for Poplarville and the northern half of the county is location of one of the county’s three newly constructed FEMA-funded storm shelters.
Danny Manley, county emergency operations director, outlined the capabilities of those shelters during a tour of the Poplarville facility at the county fairgrounds.
Electric power for the shelters is supplied by a diesel generator capable of operating 36 hours before needing to refuel, Manley said. The steel-reinforced concrete walls of the building housing the generator and the adjacent shelter are a foot thick.
The inch-thick “missile-proof” windows are designed to withstand a 200-mile-per-hour wind. He said in wind tests a 2x4 wooden projectile, while it might break the window, would not penetrate it.
The cavernous main room is approximately 8,700 square feet in size. While there are two double metal doors on the south wall, the building has no vehicular access per FEMA design regulations, he said. The nearby EOC building, formerly the Mississippi National Guard armory, does.
Manley said his original building design had an entrance that would accommodate the county’s communication trailer but that was not allowed, per FEMA specifications.
“FEMA is just worried about lifesaving and could care less about vehicles,” Manley said. “We, on the other hand, (also) like to keep our stuff safe.”
Manley said people who plan to shelter at the facility need to bring all essentials — food, water, medicines, and bedding — because nothing is provided, other than a safe place to stay. “Any time you go to a shelter you bring your own stuff.”
The facility has men’s and women’s restrooms with four commode stalls and a shower stall in each. The small, galley-style kitchen has a single sink, a wall-length countertop, and cabinets. The remaining shelter space contains two offices, separate electrical and plumbing access rooms, and a storage room with mezzanine access to the building’s heating and air conditioning.
“The whole purpose of this (building) is a safe place from a 200-mile-per-hour storm,” Manley says. He said people are always urged to evacuate out of the area in the event of a strong storm, but if that is not possible, “this is where you come.”
“When the event is over, we’re going to try and get out of here and go to work as quickly as possible.” If possible, evacuees should move to a long-term shelter such as is provided by Manna Ministries and other aid organizations. If the event is catastrophic enough, these shelters might end up as long-term shelters, but they are not designed that way, Manley said.