Katrina's lessons may have saved lives in Isaac

By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press

GULFPORT — For all the lives it took when it plowed across the Gulf Coast in 2005, Hurricane Katrina may have saved some during Isaac.

Officials took lessons from Katrina and applied them to their emergency plans. Storm shelters that can house tens of thousands of people have been built across Mississippi, communication systems have been upgraded and there are more stringent building codes.

But more than anything, Katrina taught people just how bad a hurricane can be.

“I think the public now as a whole is much more aware of what can happen,” said Donald Langham, emergency operations director for coastal Jackson County.

Langham said nearly 700 people in his county alone sought the safety of a shelter before Hurricane Isaac came ashore Tuesday in Louisiana. That’s not as many as the 1,100 or so before Katrina, but it’s a significant number given that Isaac was a tropical storm until it was relatively close to shore.

“Before, people wouldn’t leave home for a tropical storm,” Langham said.

Obviously, Isaac was no Katrina, but Isaac did dump more than a foot of rain in some places in Mississippi. It flooded neighborhoods and whipped parts of the state with a sustained wind of about 40 mph, with even stronger gusts. There was a storm surge of 6 to 8 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

Isaac was blamed for two deaths in Mississippi, both from falling trees. A tow truck driver was killed in Picayune and a woman was killed in the small town of Lexington, north of Jackson.

Katrina killed more than 200 people and caused massive destruction across south Mississippi.

Isaac flooded dozens of homes in Hancock and Jackson counties and caused other, scattered property damage. But, in a sign of quick recovery, all 12 of the coast casinos were set to reopen by Saturday, in time for the Labor Day weekend.

Long Beach resident Brenda Johns wasn’t taking any chances. She lost nearly everything when her house was destroyed by Katrina’s massive waves and punishing wind. Those are not the kind of memories that easily fade.

“Katrina showed me just how dangerous a hurricane can be and how quick it can change. I will never take a chance on a hurricane,” she said. “That’s one thing people can’t know. They don’t know what a hurricane will do.”

The fact that Isaac was raging on near Katrina’s seventh anniversary helped punctuate the warnings officials made.

Gov. Phil Bryant and other officials held a news conference several days before Isaac was projected to hit land and invoked Katrina several times to highlight the unpredictable nature of tropical weather and the challenges of mass evacuations.

After Isaac, Bryant said the state spent seven years since Katrina improving plans and strengthening buildings on the coast and requiring people to build higher off the ground in some areas. Bryant also said he was able to communicate with the leaders of the National Guard and Department of Public Safety from long distances by using a walkie-talkie.

“We have, unfortunately, learned so much about responding to the hurricanes,” Bryant said Friday in Jackson. “This was nothing near the level of Katrina but it was a very serious storm and what was gratifying was not only how the coast withstood — its structures, its buildings, its roads, bridges that we have rebuilt over these seven years — but how the teams worked.”

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Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report from Jackson, Miss.

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