Picayune Katrina lessons

Published 7:00 am Saturday, August 30, 2014

Nine years after Hurricane Katrina, the city of Picayune is more prepared than ever for natural disasters.

Even though the city’s current mayor and council members were not in office when the storm hit, they still dealt with the aftermath when they took office.

Some of the major projects they dealt with included fixing the city’s streets and infrastructure. 

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The damage to the infrastructure was not a direct result of the storm, but was caused by the resulting cleanup using heavy machinery to remove fallen trees from the city streets. That work caused damage to city streets, and water and sewer lines.

Mayor Ed Pinero Jr. said the streets suffered surface damage left by the tracks on the heavy equipment. Additionally the vibrations from the equipment caused already aging water and sewer lines to fail.

Nine years after the storm, the city is putting the finishing touches on repairing that damage.

With the power out and major retailers closed, the city missed out on tax revenue. Pinero said the city administration at the time had to use all of the reserve funds they had to keep the bills and employees paid. Today, the city has been able to build those reserve funds back up to a level that exceeds government accounting practices, Pinero said.

Planning for a disaster has also become more streamlined. Pinero said coordinated planning has been implemented between the city and county and even power companies. 

City and county emergency responders work together to keep plans updated, while power companies have come to arrangements with both entities on key staging sites for transformers and poles so power can be restored more quickly than it was after Katrina. 

“All of this is in place because of the extensive damage from Katrina,” Pinero said.

He said the city and county are doing everything possible to implement lessons learned in case another major disaster such as a tornado, flood or hurricane occurs.

Picayune Fire Chief Keith Brown said the biggest lesson his department learned was how to use social media to get information out quickly and accurately. Some of the hurdles they met with after Katrina involved how quickly information was outdated. By the time it hit news outlets, much of that information had changed. Now in an age of social media, that information can be shared more quickly, and changed when it becomes outdated.

Communication with state and federal connections is also stronger now. During Katrina, half of the communication avenues failed, but now there are digital radios, satellite phones and other forms of communication that will act as backups.

The addition of three shelters to the county will be an asset during the next emergency situation. Brown said while they are not intended to be a long-term shelter solution after a storm passes, how long they remain open will be based on the community’s need.

“I think overall we’re in a whole lot better shape than we were going into Katrina,” Brown said. “We will have our hands full, but no doubt we are better prepared.”