ROBERT LATHAM: Prepare ahead for the 2005 storm season

The 2004 hurricane season was unprecedented for those in the field of emergency management. Four major hurricanes made landfall within a six-week period – Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. These storms caused a record-setting 27 Presidential Disaster Declarations in 15 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Our state was spared major damage from Hurricane Ivan. But the destruction in Alabama and Florida is evidence of what could have happened in Mississippi.

Ivan was the first major hurricane to threaten our Gulf Coast since Hurricane Georges in 1998.

After Ivan, we were determined to use the lessons from that storm to improve our state's emergency preparedness and response plans with emphasis on hurricane evacuation, shelters and meeting the critical needs of our citizens.

Evacuation traffic congestion

During the evacuation for Ivan, our estimations are that approximately 400,000 evacuees from our Gulf Coast and three additional states were traveling on our major evacuation routes. All of the 40,000 hotel rooms north of the six Gulf Coast counties were full and another 16,000 people were in shelters.

At times during the evacuation, traffic counts along U.S. 49 and Interstates 55 and 59 were more than fives times their normal.

In spite of lengthy delays, we consider the evacuation a success because 10 hours prior to Ivan's landfall, traffic counts had fallen to below normal levels without any major accidents or deaths on the highways.

Because traffic congestion was such a great problem, Gov. Barbour appointed Department of Public Safety Commissioner George Phillips to chair a committee formed of law enforcement, transportation and emergency management officials to study how we could improve evacuation within our state.

First, the committee has established pools of law enforcement officers from state agencies who will be utilized during an impending storm or other type of disaster. These additional officers will be used in critical areas along the evacuation route to coordinate with local law enforcement to help eliminate some of the traffic choke points.

Second, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and local governments along U.S. 49 have installed what is called a stop-time switch on all major interchange traffic signals along the highway from Interstate 10 in Gulfport to Interstate 20 in Jackson.

During the month of June, MEMA and MDOT will also promote a list of alternative evacuation routes from the Gulf Coast to help reduce traffic along U.S. 49.

MEMA and MDOT have also worked with the City of Hattiesburg's Police Department and Forrest County's Emergency Management District to develop a traffic control plan to help speed evacuation traffic on U.S. 49.

Shelter capacity

We believe there was such a large evacuation in our state during Ivan because the public had seen the devastation in Florida from the three previous storms.

If a major storm were to hit our Gulf Coast, or the New Orleans area, our current shelter capacity will be inadequate, especially for an extended period.

MEMA, Mississippi Department of Human Services, Mississippi Department of Health, American Red Cross and local governments have aggressively studied our state's shelter situation. MEMA is working with these agencies to help identify additional spaces should they be needed.

The Department of Health is also working with nursing homes to make sure they have a written plan for evacuating and caring for their patients during a disaster.

Water and ice distribution plan

Besides evacuation traffic and shelters, MEMA has also worked with local emergency management officials to develop a statewide water and ice distribution plan.

Our statewide plan designates pre-established distribution locations for water and ice in each county following a disaster.

I urge each of you to prepare now.

State agencies have done everything we can possibly do to prepare for hurricanes, but ultimately it is citizen preparedness that will save lives.

Robert Latham is executive director of MEMA. Lea Stokes is Public Relations Director; phone them at 601-360-0938 or fax at 601-960-9004 fax; -email shod be sent to lstokes@mema.ms.gov.