MEMA interim director: ‘We’re in much better shape’ for disaster

Published 7:14 pm Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency’s interim director told lawmakers Tuesday that steps have been taken to improve communications and ensure a larger fuel supply for ambulance crews and other first responders in case the state faces another large-scale disaster.

Some of the changes came in response to Hurricane Katrina, which struck Aug. 29, 2005. Others, including communications improvements for law enforcement agencies, started before the storm.

Mike Womack told the Joint Legislative Budget Committee that new computer systems should help bridge communications gaps among radio systems operated by police and sheriffs departments and other emergency response agencies.

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After Katrina, communication was crippled for more than a week across south Mississippi. Agencies couldn’t talk to each other, and private citizens had trouble using their telephones because cellular towers were damaged and landline phone systems were out of commission.

Federal, state and local authorities recently conducted exercises in south Mississippi to test communications systems, both for emergency responders and for private systems, including cell phone providers.

“We are in much better shape than we were last year,” Womack said.

Gasoline shortages also were a problem as far north as Jackson, and people sat in lines for hours to fuel up.

Womack, who has led the emergency agency since former director Robert Latham retired July 1, told lawmakers that MEMA and the state Department of Finance and Administration brokered a contract with suppliers to keep a certain stock of fuel on hand during hurricane season, which runs June 1 to Nov. 30. The fuel would be made available to hospitals, law enforcement agencies and others serving the public.

State officials also are working with local governments to make sure they try to maintain some of their own fuel supplies to keep their vehicles running, Womack said.

The 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee on Wednesday enters the third of eight days of hearings. Agency directors are making spending requests for the budget year that starts next July 1. The entire Legislature will vote on spending recommendations during the three-month session that starts in January.

Womack said MEMA is seeking a “substantial increase” in its budget because the agency needs to hire more workers, including trainers and planners. He said MEMA now has 102 employees on the payroll but needs 137. Before Katrina, MEMA had 67 workers.

He said Mississippi needs to be prepared to a wide range of potential disasters, from earthquakes to tornados to levee breaks.

“As hard as we’re working trying to rebuild the coast,” Womack said, “we don’t want to lose focus on the rest of the state.”

Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, told Womack that the Newton County fire coordinator has had trouble getting money it needs from MEMA. With a drought, there has been a danger of fires.

“The county would’ve burned down, waiting for that money,” Burton said.

MEMA spokeswoman Lea Stokes said she has been in contact with the Newton County fire coordinator and is trying to ensure that the money is delivered.

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