Hurricane Preparedness Tips: Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina in Petal, Mississippi

We learned a lot in post-hurricane Katrina Mississippi about what to expect after a major disaster hits and how to prepare for one. Our generous host, tour guide and local KIRF volunteer James Moore – alderman for the woodsy suburb of Petal and owner of Moore’s Bike Shop in the neighboring city Hattiesburg – gave us an insider’s view of what happened to their town during the worst hurricane in memory. The eye of the hurricane passed over Petal with winds in excess of 150 mph that turned the ubiquitous pine trees into destructive missals. Even though the town was approximately 80 miles north of the Gulf Coast the hurricane’s powerful winds tore up many of the homes and businesses in the area. Nearly every single home had a blue “FEMA” tarp covering its wind damaged roof when we visited six weeks after the hurricane hit.

He described how the local city council and citizens of Petal struggled to maintain a civilized society in the first weeks after Katrina hit on August 29th. People were taking care of each other with no water and power service, no cell phone reception, closed stores, banks and gas stations, roads blocked with fallen trees and power lines and a crime wave of looting. I asked him how a town in California or elsewhere should prepare for a large-scale disaster. My question and his interesting answers are shown below.

Angela Kirwin: I remember that Petal needed to procure it’s own source of fuel for emergency vehicles and needed more generators for electricity. Are there any other areas of disaster preparedness that should be addressed? I’m thinking of evacuation plans, shelters for residents and their pets, long-term assistance or relocation for displaced working class folks, crime prevention, emergency water and food aid within 24 hours and debris removal.

James Moore: Most of what I’d impart about our lessons on preparedness are included in your paragraph above.  I’d rate the importance of preparedness as follows:
1.  Water and sewer must be able to operate without the power companies being in operation.  That means generators for both water pumps and sewer facilities.  You cannot deliver water into homes if you cannot also carry sewage away.
2.  Food.  Families should have several days of nonperishable food on hand at all times. Part of your preparedness plan could be to constantly run PSA’s to remind the public of this need.
3.  Merchants should all have a plan outlining of how they will make their food products available in a fair and orderly manner without the availability of electricity.  The public should consider “cash” as part of their emergency stockpile as checks or plastic will be useless in a disaster.
4.  Banks need a plan to quickly give customers access to their money in the form of cash.  Panic sets in when folks have money they cannot use to get the things they desperately need.
5.  Ice.  Most of the usual sources of ice will see their inventory of ice melt before they are able to begin selling it.  Ice is needed for two functions.  First it allows families to make their frozen and refrigerated foods last the 3 to 4 days before governmental food sources are available and secondly many medications must be refrigerated.  Locations should be established where medications may be stored by the public.  Our police department provided this service via several refrigerators at the station powered by the stations generator.  Pharmacies could also offer this service provided they have generator capacity.
6.  Law and order.  The most stressful aspect of Katrina was the realization that we were on the brink of a breakdown of civilization. The peace was very fragile. The police need a plan of curfews that are rigidly enforced and the public needs to know ahead of time what to expect from law enforcement.  There must be a contingency to lock up large numbers of citizens even to the extent of waiving some of the due process normally afforded in usual times. Looting in Hattiesburg was only brought under control when the media reported the existence of a “fence city” erected by the police where ANYONE on the streets after 6PM spent the night. There will be plenty of time to argue civil philosophy following the disaster–maintain order during the disaster with any controls that are effective.
7.  Communication. Landlines and cell phones will be useless. Your city must have a system of communications that is satellite based or cell phones with “walkie talkie” capability. All governmental agencies within your jurisdiction must share this technology – your fire department must be able to talk to your police and your police must be able to talk to the sheriff departments.  All must be able to talk to the public works departments.