Mississippi Crews Scramble to Aid Katrina Victims

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Melissa Block talks to Lea Stokes, spokeswoman with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, about the extent of coastal damage from Hurricane Katrina, and whether there was enough warning for residents to evacuate.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Mississippi, search-and-rescue crews are moving south toward the coastline, where Katrina did the most damage. The mayor of Biloxi told a local newspaper, `This is our tsunami.'

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Lea Stokes is spokeswoman with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. She joins us from Jackson.

Ms. Stokes, what can you tell us about the extent of damage that you've found along the coast?

Ms. LEA STOKES (Spokeswoman, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency): Well, this is obviously a very devastating, catastrophic event for both Louisiana residents and our own Mississippi residents and especially our Mississippi Gulf Coast. We're still doing search-and-rescue missions. We have one major highway that's been able to be cleared for first-responders and rescuers to get there and do their jobs. And we're having to ask people to please don't return to their homes and don't try to be on that road because that one road is our only, really, link to the area that's hardest hit and to get crews and food and water and supplies and manpower to the area.

BLOCK: Which road is that that's still open?

Ms. STOKES: That is Highway 49, which runs from the Mississippi Gulf Coast up through Hattiesburg and then eventually to the Jackson area.

BLOCK: What have you heard about how much is left of these communities along the coast?

Ms. STOKES: I've heard that there are some communities along the coast that are not there.

BLOCK: Just not there at all.

Ms. STOKES: Not there. I've heard that parts of some of the major roads--Highway 90, which runs right along our beach--part of that road's not there.

BLOCK: And which communities is it that apparently have disappeared?

Ms. STOKES: You know, we're hearing several things, and I don't know anything definite. And since we have so many evacuees who are still out of the state and people who have families in those areas, I don't want to be specific because we don't know for sure.

BLOCK: There seemed to have been a number of people who did not evacuate in these communities along the coast, and I'm wondering if they had enough warning. Your boss, Robert Latham, over the weekend was warning that he wasn't seeing enough preparedness, wasn't seeing signs that people were leaving, were heading north.

Ms. STOKES: Right. On Saturday, the evacuation numbers were very low. On Sunday, they did start to pick up. Local officials did issue mandatory and voluntary evacuations all along our Gulf Coast and even counties north of there. And, of course, we know several hundred thousand people from both the New Orleans area and Mississippi did evacuate or they did go to higher grounds.

BLOCK: Is there some sense that maybe those evacuation orders came too late, that people thought they didn't have to take this too seriously?

Ms. STOKES: No, I wouldn't think they came too late. People had a full weekend to leave before the storm hit on Monday. And even on Friday, people were suggesting they should leave. They had all day Saturday and Sunday, and it was absolute gorgeous weather. There were some traffic jams, of course, as with any evacuation, but the evacuation orders were issued early for everyone.

BLOCK: But Harrison County, I think, which would include Gulfport, didn't issue an evacuation order until Sunday, the day before the hurricane struck.

Ms. STOKES: No, they issued a voluntary evacuation on Friday; they were the earliest county.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. But for mandatory evacuation...

Ms. STOKES: And then mandatory--once the storm started growing in intensity and turning, they issued a full mandatory.

BLOCK: What about long-term reconstruction of this area, or what do you do with the people who are in shelters who have no place to go? What do you do for them?

Ms. STOKES: American Red Cross has told us that the shelters will be available still to house people within the next few days and even weeks. And, of course, when you talk about long-term recovery from something this catastrophic, you're talking about years. Until then, FEMA does help provide some temporary housing, temporary rental. And we are under a federal disaster declaration, so hopefully we'll be able to find some kind of stationary locations and housing for these people.

BLOCK: Have you had any sense from the power companies or the phone companies of how long it might be before those utilities are back?

Ms. STOKES: Power companies--literally, they're bringing in thousands and thousands of workers from several states. But right now roads are still simply impassable. We've got to get roads cleared just so these line crews can go in and try and restore power. And they've even said power could be as long as four and five and six weeks in some areas of Louisiana and Mississippi being restored.

BLOCK: Ms. Stokes, thanks very much for talking with us today.

Ms. STOKES: God bless you.

BLOCK: Lea Stokes is a spokeswoman with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency in Jackson.

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