I joined several thousand others in attending the Governor's Hurricane Conference in Ft. Lauderdale last week. For the second year in a row, those of us who are members of the State Emergency Response Team were forced to monitor wildfire outbreaks throughout the state while we attended the conference. Fortunately the counties and the state Division of Forestry were able to manage with very little additional state assistance.
The most interesting presentation was by Mike Womack from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, although very little of the information he presented made the media. He gave us all an update on the progress Mississippi is making in rebuilding two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina. At the beginning of his presentation he asked those of us in the room who had responded to Mississippi after Katrina to stand. I felt good that I had responded and was very interested in the progress that Mississippi had made.
His presentations made clear the difficulties in recovering from such a catastrophe. The delay in rebuilding is often attributed to FEMA bureaucracy and incompetence but the truth lies more in the staggering logistical difficulties of the task and the need for state and local officials to make difficult decisions that often alienate certain constituencies. Vast sums of federal dollars are made available for rebuilding but these dollars must be spent sequentially and not all at once. The buildings can't be constructed until the roads are repaired. The roads cannot be rebuilt until the utilities are laid. The utilities can't be installed until the debris is removed and the debris removal took almost two years.
Why so long for the debris? Just load it onto a truck and haul it away, right? But where? You can't just dump it all in the ocean. The local landfills cannot hold the staggering quantity of tonnage involved. Much of the area was contaminated by the storm surge with a toxic soup of petroleum, chemicals and sewage. The casino barges that were transported inland by the storm had to be cut into manageable pieces. Damaged structures had to be torn down. Automobiles and trucks had to be hauled away and stripped so that the steel could be salvaged.
Plus, local officials had to educate their communities about the rebuilding options. Should the communities be rebuilt as they were, to be destroyed again with the next storm? Or should the buildings be elevated, at much greater expense? Many of the public buildings, like schools, were rebuilt north of Interstate 10 so that they could be used as risk shelters. New land had to be found and in some cases purchased to accommodate these schools.
Many Floridians believe that the storms of 2004 and 2005 have prepared the citizens of our state for the hurricanes to come. Yet, none of those storms were as catastrophic as Katrina. The time may come when we will have to face the grim and difficult decisions faced by the people of Mississippi.