The editorial below was written by me in September 2005 and was published in the Orlando Sentinel.
Someone needs to tell the story of what the State of Florida did in southern Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. I can tell a part of the story because I was there.
At midday on Aug 29, with the storm still on the top of Mississippi, I was in the Florida State Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Tallahassee completing our response to Hurricane Katrina’s impact in Miami-DadeCounty. As the participants from the noon video teleconference with FEMA rushed into the room, I asked one of them, “What’s going on?”
“We’re going to Mississippi,” he replied.
At a subsequent briefing, we were told that Florida was to move into Mississippi and assume responsibility for the emergency management of the six southern counties. This was staggering and unprecedented news. Nothing like this had ever been attempted before, and as veterans of many hurricanes, we all knew that the full brunt of Katrina had fallen on the southern Mississippi coast.
Thinking back on it now, we should have been more nervous about the task ahead of us then we were. This wasn’t a normal hurricane: it was a catastrophic event. We needed to get in there and get in there fast, but we were working on unfamiliar ground with counties that didn’t know us or our system. Yet after dealing with four hurricanes in six weeks the year before, we were confident that we could handle the challenge.
The first members of the Florida State Emergency Response Team (SERT) departed the morning of Aug 30 and by the evening of Aug 31 there were 1,800 Florida State and county employees on the ground in southern Mississippi along with 400 trucks of water and ice that we had purchased and had on hand in Florida for Katrina. On Sep 1, Day 3 after the storm, we were distributing water and ice to victims in Mississippi.
The Florida Area Command in Mississippi was established at the StennisSpaceCenter in the western part of the State. The State Division of Forestry, along with the U.S. Forest Service, established and managed a Logistics Staging Area at Stennis. In order to replicate the emergency management system that we had in Florida, we placed a management team with satellite voice and data links in each of the six counties. Using this system, the requests from each of the counties were transmitted to the Florida Area Command and to our State EOC in Tallahassee. If the Logistics Staging Area had the product or service requested, then it was immediately shipped to the county.
The Florida State EOC was fully mobilized in support of this operation. If the item requested was not in southern Mississippi, then Tallahassee purchased the item and had it shipped to Stennis for distribution. By Sep 4 we had distributed into the six counties one million gallons of water and ten million pounds of ice. By September 9, the Florida Area Command had grown to over 3,600 Floridians and had received and distributed 2.5 million gallons of bottled water and 21 million pounds of ice. To date, the State of Florida has purchased over $83 million of goods and services for the Hurricane Katrina response, and that figure is still growing.
I arrived at the Florida Area Command at Stennis on September 2 with the responsibility of coordinating the enormous human services response to the disaster.For 3 days I slept on the ground by my car and worked out of a command trailer with two people helping me. The situation was chaotic, the needs were great, and everything was a priority. Such is the nature of emergency management.
Water, ice and shelf stable meals were being distributed to sites throughout the area. The immediate human services priorities were to improve the quality of life in the shelters (which were overcrowded and unsanitary) and to assist the Salvation Army and Red Cross in establishing their mobile kitchens so that they could cook and distribute hot meals. By the time I returned to Florida on September 14, these priorities had been achieved.
Television images or pictures cannot accurately convey the look, smell and feel of a catastrophic event. Many of us were veterans of many hurricanes but very few of us had seen a disaster of this level or scope. To me, the most remarkable part of the whole experience was the reaction of the people of Mississippi. They showed themselves to be tough, resilient and philosophically ready to deal with the catastrophe that had befallen them.
Craig Fugate, the Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, has said many times that there are three alternatives in a disaster response: inexpensive, efficient or timely. You must pick one. Florida has chosen the timely alternative because that is the best disaster response for the citizens of our state. We did our very best to provide that high level of service to the citizens of Mississippi. They called and we came and we were glad to do it.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, FEMA and emergency managers from other states are now moving in to take Florida’s place in the struggle to move southern Mississippi back to health. As the state and county workers that made up the SERT come home to Florida, the nation should know and recognize the truly historic accomplishment that they achieved.
I was there. I saw it happen. I will testify to what they did.
Michael Whitehead works for the State of Florida and is the State Mass Care Officer for the Florida State Emergency Response Team.
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