Emergency Operations Two Years After Katrina

Hancock County, Miss., was hit by a 28-foot storm surge during Hurricane Katrina. Since then, its makeshift Emergency Operations Center has been run out of a school. Now the school wants its building back, and when the storm season ends December 1, the EOC may have to move.

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Residents of New Orleans and coastal Mississippi are watching Hurricane Dean's progress, and many are wondering if it could turn north. And then the next question: are we ready for another one?

NPR's Noah Adams is in Hancock County, Mississippi, where the Emergency Operations Center is still operating in temporary headquarters - two years after Hurricane Katrina.

NOAH ADAMS: Here is a small way to start a big story. A Catholic priest offers to open a garage door.

(Soundbite of garage door opening)

ADAMS: Oh, my, what do you have in here?

Father JOHN NOON(ph) (Annunciation Church School): Books, bibles, chairs, tables - everything that we brought over from the school.

ADAMS: In the time after Katrina, the Annunciation Church School was shut down and the county - Hancock County - looked for a place for its Emergency Operations Center, a place with a lot of room. Father John Noon said we can work this out, there's no need to pay rent. We'll make a deal. You can have it for two years. Now, though, more parish families are returning, the youngsters are back, registrations are up, Annunciation wants its school.

Father NOON: We need the assembly hall because the youth need to have retreats. They need to have play times as well. They need to have space for the classes. So, it's just a situation where if we don't have the space, the parish will begin to die.

ADAMS: Hancock County and Katrina - 56 people died. They had rough, tearing winds and a surge from the Gulf 28-feet high. That's 28 feet of water coming in. Almost half the housing could not be lived in. The EOC, the Emergency Operations Center, had been flooded out too. They found one temporary home, then the current one at the school. And this is where FEMA would come, the Army Corps of Engineers and the volunteers.

Brian Adam, the emergency director, told me some days there were a hundred people there.

Mr. BRIAN ADAM (Army Corps of Engineers): A lot of people, right after Katrina, were sleeping in their cars outside the EOC, sleeping in every room or wherever we could put them.

ADAMS: The hurricane - the tornado - that's when you hear about the EOC, but what do they do between the big storms?

Mr. ADAM: We investigate fires, which is almost every day. We're homeland security coordinators; we deal with that every day. And I'm sure and I understand that some people may not think a big building is needed, but if they sit in our shoes they would see that it is.

ADAMS: The building Brian Adam envisions would be a brand new, permanent big enough home for the EOC. The county's got some land at the airport. Adam figures eight million for the building with dormitories and a kitchen and a 911 call center, and the low-power FM radio station that helped so much the last time.

Mr. ROCKY PULLMAN (Hancock Board of Supervisors): My name Rocky Pullman. I'm District 2 county supervisor in Hancock County, and I'm the president of the Board of Supervisors.

ADAMS: We're talking in Pullman's side yard, under an imaginary level of nine to 10 feet of water that once was here. Rocky Pullman says the county is financially strapped. Property taxes don't get paid on homes that are gone. There are some bright spots, including FEMA money to pay for hurricane shelters. But supervisor Pullman has long been frustrated hearing about billions in federal relief funds flowing into the Mississippi state capital that can't fix everything.

Mr. PULLMAN: What we got to do is figure out how to get it from Jackson down here where it's truly needed. What happens is if the taxpayers of this county have to fund an EOC themselves, then that means these homeowners is going to have to pay more taxes. We're going to have to do long-term bond indebtedness to build an EOC, build a jail or repair a jail, whatever it may be. Whatever we do, it's beginning to look like the people of these county is going to have to pay their way out of here.

ADAMS: The weather has been pleasant along the coast this week. If you live here you notice that, especially nearing the Katrina anniversary. Lisa Tally is one of those who lost everything.

Ms. LISA TALLY (Katrina Victim): My house got about 10 feet of water. I rented at the time, and I'm now in a habitat house, so I am much better off than in my own home, starting to collect things. I've been in there for only about three weeks now, so we are in the very beginning stages of ownership, but enjoying it every much.

ADAMS: Lisa Tally has her new place. For the EOC, that's still the question. Father Noon of Annunciation Church said they'd probably let them stay until December and the end of hurricane season.

Brian Adam, the emergency director, said then they'd have to move into trailers. And how is he supposed to get people out of trailers in Hancock County if he's in them himself?

Noah Adams, NPR News.

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