Columbia leadership class meets with Pearl River County leaders

Published 11:09 pm Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Members of the City of Columbia’s Leadership Class met with leaders of the City of Picayune and Pearl River County to get some perspective of what challenges the county faced as a whole after Hurricane Katrina.

Leadership classes, which are held here in Pearl River County under the umbrella of Partners for Pearl River County, seek to teach business and community leaders the skills they need to succeed.

Picayune and Pearl River County officials spoke to the group from Marion County, which also included two members of their board of supervisors, about the things the county and city learned in the aftermath of Katrina and the things that have changed since.

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The meeting, held Tuesday at Picayune’s new train depot, was geared at helping Columbia and Marion County residents and officials develop new ideas for dealing with emergencies, said Marion County District V Supervisor Calvin Newsom.

One of the most noticeable changes in Picayune since the storm was the increase in population, said Police Chief Jim Luke. Luke estimated the population in the city increased from 10,000 to about 30,000 during the months after the storm.

“I can honestly say it’s never been the same again,” Luke said.

In the next five years Luke expects to see a different city than what is here now. Some changes have already taken place in his department, such as achieving national and state accreditation, he said.

Columbia leadership class member Don Scarborough asked Luke how well the county and city law enforcement agencies work together. Luke said the departments tend to work together as well as independently, depending on the situation.

“… I’m not too proud to ask for help,” Luke said. “I think that you have to have that partnership.”

Council member Leavern Guy said there is some friction between city and county governments, and that the two entities are trying to smooth out that issue. One way to do that would be to work on areas that the city and county have in common, he said.

Council member Jerry Bounds said since the storm he has noticed a great need to improve infrastructure, especially roads and sewer.

“Every street in Picayune could be paved right now,” Bound said.

Some of that work will be done with a $2.1 million downtown revitalization grant, which will pave West Canal Street and fund other Main Street area improvements. Other planned improvements in Picayune include a waste water treatment plant to be built by the Pearl River County Utility Authority. Bounds said another necessary repair after the storm involves fire hydrants damaged by heavy machinery removing storm debris.

Picayune Fire Chief Keith Brown said the biggest challenge for emergency services after the storm was maintaining communications with the surrounding area. With communications systems down, discussions with the Emergency Management office in Poplarville were severed for a day until the roads were cleared. To fix solve problem, Brown said the city and county have added five layers of communication, all the way from Ham radios to satellite technology.

A change prompted by the storm involves including faith-based organizations in the planning process since they were a big asset after Katrina, Brown said.

Fuel was a rare commodity after the storm. To ensure city vehicles remained on the road, the city commandeered a local gas station, Guy said.

Brown said did not recommended such an action to the Marion County group since he had to arm his fire fighters with weapons to protect them from residents without access to fuel. “People get crazy when they get desperate,” he said.

The city now has a fueling solution that is out of public view, Brown said.

Generators, for city hall and large waste water lift stations, have been added, Brown said. Grant funds are key to get these preparations in place. The grant funds gave the city the ability to conduct the Down Town Revitalization and build a new fire station on South Loftin Avenue, aid Interim City Manager Harvey Miller and Brown.

The Pearl River County Board of Supervisors also have experienced major changes since the storm, not only with the increase in population but with elected officials. District IV Supervisor Patrick Lee said Pearl River County’s board has four new supervisors, a new sheriff, new Planning and Development director and new Emergency Management director. While that change took some getting used to, it has brought new ideas to the table, Lee said.

“I think we got a tremendous future ahead of us,” Lee said.

Some of those changes include a clean-up campaign, a planned 1,000 acre lake project with adjacent residential and county areas and three emergency shelters planned for construction in the county and two cities, said Planning and Development Director Ed Pinero.

Newsom said the meeting provided him with some ideas to approach issues in Marion County, such as dealing with roads and drainage. He now plans to seek avenues to apply for funding much like Picayune has. Newsom said the team work he saw between the county and city in Pearl River County has him planning to work with his board to form plans and work together with Columbia officials.