September 12, 2011 8:19:00 AM
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Homeland Security grants after Sept. 11, 2001, helped the state prepare to handle Hurricane Katrina and other emergencies, Mississippi officials say.
Mississippi has received more than $455 million since 9/11, The Clarion-Ledger reported.
A year before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the state got a mobile command unit -- an oversized RV equipped with sophisticated equipment that allows communication with federal, state and local officials.
It was in place and helping to coordinate the response a dozen hours after Katrina made landfall, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Executive Director Mike Womack said. It was used again in April, after a tornado tore down most of the town of Smithville.
Womack says much of the money was used for basic response equipment, and some went for training and protective gear.
"A large amount of the money was used for basic response equipment," Womack said.
McAllister said it also let MEMA pay to train fire investigators for advanced scenarios, including chemical or nuclear explosions.
From 2003 to 2007, MEMA received about $27.5 million in preparedness grants. The money was used on equipment, supplies and training by local and state agencies.
DeSoto County emergency services director Bobby Storey said the county was able to purchase its first explosive-detecting dog with a Homeland Security grant.
"We have six in the county now," he said. "When there are bomb threats at schools or businesses, we are able to take them in to clear."
From self-contained breathing apparatuses to a rescue truck to Jaws-of-Life extraction equipment, Storey said the money has given DeSoto the ability to purchase "a lot of things we really needed."
"We''ve had quite a few tornadoes, and we have all of the equipment in place that we probably wouldn''t have had without these grants," he said.
Decades ago, 15 workers from the state Department of Health were dedicated to emergency response, said Jim Craig, the department''s health protection director. "We would work them half to death."
When Katrina hit, the department sent 1,400 employees, he said. "As of now, we have over 2,000 employees who have received training."
For the Health Department, what began as funding to deal with potential terrorist attacks has expanded to include biological, chemical, radioactive, nuclear and natural disasters, plus disease outbreaks, said Craig, whose agency has received more than $108 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When the tornado smashed Smithville, the Health Department sent its Mass Fatality Team to respond, he said. "We didn''t have that in Katrina."
With the help of community colleges, the department now establishes Special Medical Needs Shelters during disasters, he said. "These are things we wouldn''t have had if not for Sept. 11."
Now when counties need assistance, he said, "we can send liaisons. We can help with issues they don''t see every day."
Mississippi also is completing a $200 million statewide radio system for first responders so police, fire and rescue personnel can talk to each other. The system is also operable with surrounding states.
The Mississippi Office of Homeland Security has received $120 million over the past decade for terrorism prevention and response.
Mississippi lacks the symbolic targets that terrorists like, said Executive Director J.W. Ledbetter. "We''re in the bottom tier of states in funding. Some of them get 10 times what we get."
The good news is the response to a disaster is the same whether it is planned or accidental, he said.
Occasionally those on the terrorist alert list wind up being pulled over by law enforcement officials in Mississippi, he said. At that point, the people are arrested or released in order to track them, he said.
"We get them mostly in the I-20 and I-10 corridors," he said. "They''re just passing through our state, but we log their travel, time and direction. Hopefully someone takes a look at them."
After Katrina hit, Mississippi authorities realized more needed to be done to coordinate efforts, Columbus Fire Chief Ken Moore said.
He heads one of three task forces that respond to disasters, such as the Smithville tornado. None of this would have happened without Homeland Security, he said.
"Once local communities get overwhelmed, we''ve got the equipment and resources to help," he said. "We''re also prepared to go to other states. We want to pay back anybody that''s helped us."
1. Councilman Turner responds to AG opinion COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
3. Camp Rising Sun: A community treasure COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
4. Higgins: $150 million project eying Lowndes Port COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY