String of disasters put strain on MEMA

JACKSON – Disasters, both manmade and natural, have stretched the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency thin in recent weeks.
The agency, which generally takes the lead in coordinating the state’s response to a disaster, is having to deal with two consecutive weekends of killer tornadoes, including the weekend of May 1 in Northeast Mississippi, and the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico that threatens the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“We have been going pretty much nonstop,” said Jeff Rent, a spokesman for MEMA.
Rent said MEMA had people on the ground after the April 24 storm tore a 150-mile long, one-mile wide swath through the state. Then the following weekend, much of Northeast Mississippi was hit by tornadoes, high winds and heavy rains.
And if that is not enough, there is the oil spill.
“We have gotten on top of these disasters,” said Dan Turner, a spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour who selected Mike Womack to head up MEMA. “It is just like anything else. With hindsight there are things you would have done quicker or differently. But the folks with MEMA have responded PDQ. From all indications, they have done well.”
State Rep. Jack Gadd, D-Hickory Flat, praised the work of MEMA. He said the storms hit in Benton County after midnight May 2, and “MEMA was on the ground here by 4 or 4:30 in the morning. I think that is pretty good.”
State Sen. Bill Stone, D-Ashland, agreed.
“They have been up here providing guidance,” Stone said.
While Mississippi has been hit particularly hard in recent weeks, it is not the only state dealing with a disaster.
Emergency management officials from other states have come to Mississippi to provide assistance as part of a compact. An employee from Oklahoma had to return home after a tornado hit her state and another employee from Tennessee never arrived because of floods there.
Rent said MEMA serves several functions, but is not a first responder. MEMA assesses damages to help determine whether to file a request for a federal disaster declaration that will result in additional financial assistance. President Barack Obama has issued federal disaster declarations for several counties as a result of both weekends of storms in Mississippi.
Plus, the agency helps coordinate what is needed to respond to the disaster. That might mean working with the Department of Transportation or with the Department of Health. It also might mean helping to secure food, water and other supplies, or even tarps for damaged roofs.
On the Coast, Rent said other state agencies – the Department of Environmental Quality and Marine Resources – are the lead responders to the oil slick, but MEMA is heavily involved in the response.
“If they have needs, we help fill them,” Rent said, explaining MEMA helps coordinate the response.
The governor’s office and MEMA said it is too early to determine what the multiple disasters will mean to the agency’s budget. But the governor did refer to needing additional money to match federal disaster funds as a reason for vetoing on Friday legislation that would take $20 million in state funds to help reduce homeowner insurance on the Gulf Coast.
Turner said he thinks the agency’s budget will be OK “if we get through the rest of the fiscal year and don’t have any more problems.”
That will be OK with Rent and the other MEMA employees.
Of course, hurricane season will be here soon.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal