Governor says be ready

Published 11:20 pm Saturday, August 18, 2007

Gov. Haley Barbour and emergency response officials along the tattered Mississippi Gulf Coast reviewed their action plans Friday in case Hurricane Dean changes course and advances on the region.

Dean grew into a Category 3 storm on Friday as its 125 mph winds wreaked havoc across Caribbean islands. The storm was expected to gain power, hit Jamaica on Sunday, and climb to Category 4 status before clipping Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It was projected to steer into the Gulf of Mexico by Wednesday, threatening the U.S.-Mexico border area.

Barbour said even though the early forecasts indicate the storm will not directly threaten Mississippi, he wanted residents to prepare a plan of action, especially since thousands of residents still live in vulnerable FEMA travel trailers two years after Hurricane Katrina.

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Barbour said it was imperative that those 13,000 families be evacuated if an order has to be issued.

“Today people in Mississippi don’t need to panic, but they need to think,” Barbour said.

A new evacuation plan implemented after Katrina provides bus transportation to residents who might otherwise be stranded on the coast. Barbour said officials on Sunday would begin readying the buses, which would transport people to shelters in central Mississippi.

While Barbour can issue an evacuation order, those usually come from local emergency management agencies. Evacuation orders can be voluntary or mandatory, depending on whether a hurricane watch or warning is issued, officials said.

Barbour was taking no chance, saying he would order an evacuation 72 hours before a possible landfall in Mississippi. Evacuations for Katrina came much later, in the 24-to-48 hour range.

“We can’t wait until the last day,” Barbour said during a news conference at his office in Jackson, where he was joined by Gil H. Jamieson, FEMA’s Associate Deputy Administrator-Gulf Coast Recovery.

Jamieson said FEMA had 1.7 million liters of water, 1.3 million packaged meals, fuel, generators and other supplies stored at a facility in Purvis in south Mississippi. He said the communications system has been strengthened with the addition of cell phone towers and radios, and that new grids were established for any search and rescue missions.

“We are ready for this hurricane that’s out in the Atlantic,” Jamieson said.

Mississippi also has a stockpile of commodities, said Lea Stokes, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Representatives of MEMA and emergency management agencies from other Gulf Coast states took part in a conference call on Thursday with FEMA, she said.

“We’re all preparing because we know it could be our state,” Stokes said. “None of the forecast models three days before Katrina hit showed Katrina hitting our state. We’re a little skittish because it’s the Friday before a weekend and people tend to relax.”

Barbour said people should think about where they will go if an evacuation is ordered and how they’ll travel. He said people should make sure they have fuel, water, and a source of communication if electricity is lost.

“No government is big enough to do everything for everybody,” Barbour said.

On the Gulf Coast, people were already stockpiling some supplies, said Rupert Lacy, deputy director for Harrison County Emergency Management.

Lacy said emergency response officials in the county, the most populous on the Gulf Coast, will monitor the storm over the weekend and begin preparedness meetings on Monday.

Butch Loper, director of Jackson County Emergency Management, said once an evacuation order is issued people living in FEMA trailers will be forced to leave.

“Guardsmen will knock on their doors and tell them they must get out,” said Loper, explaining that the trailers were federal property.

Loper said his coastal county, which borders Alabama, also was making some early preparations, mostly reviewing and coordinating their plans with the municipalities.