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Miss. rebounding after Katrina but more work to be done

Aug 28, 2015
In The News

(WASHINGTON) – Please see Congressman Bennie G. Thompson’s op-ed in today’s Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger:

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina made landfall here in Mississippi and our lives changed overnight. At its peak, the storm surge reached 28 feet along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, completely destroying Waveland, Pass Christian, and Bay St. Louis and devastating our neighbors in Alabama and Louisiana. When storm finally dissipated, it claimed the lives of over 1,800 Gulf Coast residents, including 238 Mississippians. 230,000 homes in Mississippi were damaged, uninhabitable, or completely destroyed. Millions of people along the Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana Gulf Coast were displaced; tens of thousands lived in FEMA trailers for months or years. Even 180 miles north of the Coast, hurricane-force winds wreaked havoc in our state’s capital, peeling off pieces of the roof of the Old Capitol and leaving the museum shut for three years.

The initial response and recovery processes after Hurricane Katrina were slow and inadequate. The magnitude of the storm’s destruction exposed serious systemic problems with how federal, state, and local governments were responding to disasters at the time. For example, opportunities to pre-stage important resources before the storm were missed. Chain of command coordination failures hampered the distribution of critical federal resources. There was a lack of well-qualified, well-trained, and well-funded emergency response personnel. Emergency communications hiccups — reminiscent of September 11 — undermined response efforts. And states lacked the ability to quickly or effectively drawdown much-needed federal recovery funds. Unfortunately, parts of southern Mississippi are still feeling the impact of these mistakes 10 years after the storm.

After Hurricane Katrina, Congress tried to address these gaps in preparedness, response and recovery by passing the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act in 2006. This legislation aims to drastically improve disaster planning efforts, streamline leadership and authorities for future disasters, improve coordination with federal, state, local and private sector partners, and ensure we had effective evacuation and temporary housing plans as well as a public emergency alert and warning system.

Nationally, we have made marked progress on addressing many of these gaps. Our planning and exercise programs have led to quicker, more effective response and recovery efforts. The Integrated Public Alerts and Warnings System has saved lives by getting people out of harm’s way. However, significant challenges remain, particularly with respect to federal policies related to long term recovery. Interoperable emergency communications is still a vexing problem and substantive disaster housing options are still severely limited. During the remainder of the 114th Congress, I will continue to work to address these and other issues critical to improving our ability to respond and recover from storms like Hurricane Katrina.

Despite the horrific loss of Hurricane Katrina, survivors in Mississippi and along the Coast demonstrated inspiring resilience during the summer of 2005. Cities have rebuilt infrastructure and their populations are rebounding. But some of our poorest, most vulnerable citizens had to wait the longest for the recovery resources they needed to rebuild. We must do better.

Full recovery from a storm like Hurricane Katrina takes grit, perseverance and resources. The memory of Hurricane Katina is not merely a story of survival, but of hope for the future. The American people proved once again their commitment to helping those affected by disaster by sending resources and selflessly assisting those in need. With the help and support of volunteers from across the world, the residents of the Gulf Coast have managed to rebuild much of what they lost. As we mark this 10th anniversary, let us honor those we lost by continuing our efforts to finish rebuilding the areas damaged by storm, becoming better prepared to respond and recover from future disasters, and remembering tragedy as a story of American perseverance and generosity. While we have more to do to prepare for the next storm, we know we must do so together as a community.