MEMA to deal with simulated Cat 3 hurricane during preparation drill

Published 7:47 pm Tuesday, May 8, 2007

A simulated Category 3 hurricane will bear down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Tuesday, and emergency operations officials say the drill could highlight the strengths and weakness in the state’s hurricane plan.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency will coordinate the two-day hurricane preparedness drill involving hundreds of emergency officials and support personnel from every major state agency, said MEMA Director Mike Womack.

MEMA officials will track and evaluate a mock storm that will have an intensity similar to Hurricane Ivan, a Category 3 hurricane that pounded Alabama and the Florida Panhandle in 2004.

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“There’s really only two ways to evaluate plans. You absolutely have to have exercises,” Womack said, adding that the only other way to effectively gauge a plan is a real hurricane.

Womack said some 300-500 people will participate in the exercise, which will occur largely behind the scenes. There won’t be any major movement of equipment, but the drill will give officials the opportunity to test lines of communication between the state and local emergency operations centers.

Butch Loper, the emergency operations director in coastal Jackson County, welcomes the drill because he wants to evaluate what he considers potential flaws in the state’s plan.

“The main thing I have trouble understanding is why they are putting all their eggs in one basket with the Internet as the way to communicate. My perspective of what happened to me during Hurricane Katrina is that ain’t going to work,” Loper said. “I’m hoping that this will give me an opportunity to make a point.”

Loper said the plan’s reliance on computer communication is a problem underscored by the several days Jackson County was without Internet connection in the wake of the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane.

“The plan we’re going under … has never been tried,” Loper said. “I’ve got a lot of apprehensions.”

Rupert Lacy, deputy director of the Harrison County Emergency Operations Center, said he also has some concerns. He hopes those will be alleviated during the drill.

“There have been major changes in the plan and this will be the first opportunity to work some of those issues out,” Lacy said. “It gives us a good working knowledge of what we can expect out of the state of Mississippi, our counterparts in MEMA.”

When the drill begins, the simulated storm will be some 48 hours from landfall, Womack said.

“During that time period, you make your decisions on evacuation. You make your decisions on major sheltering. You make your decisions on deployment of food, water and ice and equipment you might need,” Womack said.

He said on Wednesday the exercise would focus on post-landfall responses, including search and rescue and emergency medical needs.

Womack would not say what strength the fictitious storm will be when it hits or where it would make landfall because he wants it to be just as unpredictable for those involved as a real hurricane would be.