Mike Womack, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, state officials decided building more shelters was a priority.
"This is part of the legacy from Katrina," he said. "It makes the whole state safer."
The three coastal counties all have shelters certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that can withstand 200 mph winds. These are known as FEMA 361 shelters.
Hancock County has four such shelters that will be open in the next month. In Harrison County, D'Iberville High and West Harrison High both were built to FEMA standards. The county also has three more standalone FEMA shelters that will open in a few weeks.
In Jackson County, the new St. Martin High School was built as a FEMA 361 shelter, and Donald Langham, emergency management director, said the county soon will break ground on three more. The new shelters will be in St. Martin, Vancleave and the East Central community and will hold about 500 people each.
The FEMA shelters are self-contained and have their own water, sewer and generator systems.
"Katrina made us cognizant of sewer issues and cognizant of water issues," said Rupert Lacy, emergency management director in Harrison County. "We were used to losing power, but we usually got that back in a few days. That wasn't the case with Katrina."
Womack said people still need to evacuate if they can but these shelters give them another option.
"If someone is compelled to stay near their homes, they can," Womack said. "It's a balance of people who want to leave and those who need to stay."
Still, Womack and other emergency managers want people to leave the area if they can if a hurricane is headed for the Gulf Coast.
Evacuation still preferred
"As the citizens are planning, if at all possible people need to evacuate from the three coastal counties," he said. "If everybody decides to stay, we won't have enough shelter space."
Womack said something else that's new this year is that counties must let people with medical needs use general population shelters if possible. Emergency managers and Red Cross officials are going through the list of shelters to determine which ones have space for medical equipment.
"It's a very new area for sheltering," he said. "We would love it if shelters could meet every need of people who come to it, but we can't afford to do that."
Still, he said workers are trying to consider all populations - young, old and those with medical needs - when looking at shelters.
"It makes the job of the Red Cross and emergency managers harder, and it's going to take years to evolve, but it's the right thing to do," Womack said.
Lacy said workers at shelters in Harrison County triage people to determine where they need to be and to identify those with special needs.
"We have always tried to take those people into general population shelters," he said. "We haven't segregated them, but we have taken people who truly need it and put them at a medical shelter."
Lacy added different groups have their own standards for who is special needs.
"People who survived Hurricane Katrina might be considered special needs according to some criteria," he said.
Womack and Lacy stressed that people need to decide now where they're going and what they will bring with them.