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15 years since Katrina, emergency operations still adding new tech

Emergency management has changed dramatically in the 15 years since Hurricane Katrina, including more robust communication and infrastructure improvements.

Technology

Improved technology is one of the biggest changes since that historic storm, according to Pearl River County Emergency Management Director Danny Manley.

People are now able to receive information directly from the Emergency Operations Center much faster via social media. The EOC also has a new crisis track app that was paid for by the state. Hurricane Sally was the first storm the app was activated for, although it was not put to use.

When the county is hit by severe weather, the EOC will be able to activate the app to send out educational information and citizens will be able to use it to self-report storm damage, said Manley.
Communication

Along with an improved ability to communicate with the public, the EOC also has direct links to the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, so it can get real time updates. In the past, emergency services had to wait on the news cycle to receive updates on storms, said Manley.

At the Emergency Operations Center in Poplarville, staff receive updates on a storm’s track, rain totals and wind fields and can track power outages from both Coast Electric and Mississippi Power—all in real time.

The EOC also has a computer system that gives staff direct links to state emergency management.

“We can literally see everything that’s going on everywhere in the state,” said Manley.

The computer system gives the EOC information on damage assessments and deployment assets throughout the state. The EOC’s situation room gives it a scroll of what people in different state agencies are working on in real time, said Manley.

Infrastructure

Along with faster communication, the communication systems are also more robust, thanks to improved infrastructure put in place after Katrina.

The MSWIN system, the 700 Mhz radio system emergency services use to communicate with each other, has generator backups at all sites, so if power goes out, those sites will still operate. The radio towers are designed to withstand winds similar to those produced by Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.

Critical infrastructure throughout the county has backup power. All of the county’s fire stations have backup generators, as well as the EOC building and the three storm shelters built throughout the county. Water services, sewer services and emergency agencies have backup power.

Before Hurricane Katrina, the county used churches and schools as storm shelters, said Manley, but in the years after the storm, the county added three 10,000 square foot storm shelters, one each in Picayune, Carriere and Poplarville.

“Another major change since Hurricane Katrina is the implementation of new updated building codes, which makes our structures stronger and safer in times of a hurricane,” said Manley.

Operations

“Since Hurricane Katrina, the incident command system has really been employed constantly. We are training, planning and exercising using the incident command system,” said Manley.

The system of operation was developed by California fire services, who were faced with wildfires.

“It was perfected by them, then adopted by us to handle all major incidents. We pretty much operate it on a day-to-day basis,” said Manley.

When the president, the governor or a county or city administration declares a state of emergency, emergency management law goes into effect. It changes who reports to who and who is in charge of what, to streamline communication during an emergency.

If the county needs help during a declared emergency, it communicates with the state through the emergency management office. When the state needs help, it asks the federal government and communications are passed through the state emergency management office.

This means if a disaster hits Pearl River County, the state knows to reach out to Manley and the EOC to find out what the county needs. City and county elected officials communicate their needs with Manley, who pushes for and tracks resources through his office.

Constant Updates

Although the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina motivated the majority of the improvements, the upgrades did not stop five or 10 years after the storm.

The EOC is constantly upgrading its operations, said Manley. When an event happens somewhere in the U.S., emergency management agencies learn something from that event, said Manley.

Then the federal government makes grants available to help emergency management centers across the country improve based on that event.

“They’ll learn something over there, then funding is made available to us to make adjustments and corrections, so that whatever happened in the other places won’t happen here,” he said.