Hurricane Katrina and the Lessons Learned from Mississippi’s Recovery

Katrina slammed the state seven years ago and Jon Mabry has been in the middle of its recovery.

by / August 29, 2012
Photo courtesy of the Mississippi Disaster Recovery Division Mississippi Disaster Recovery Division

It’s been seven years since Hurricane Katrina after which Mississippi then-Gov. Haley Barbour created the state’s Disaster Recovery Division and placed Jon Mabry as its chief operations officer. In that position Mabry administers more than $5 billion in federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding earmarked by Congress for recovery projects after Katrina.

Catastrophic disaster recovery planning and execution is a rare event that many professional emergency managers will never experience. Mabry agreed to participate in an interview with Emergency Management magazine to share the state's challenges, successes and what he would do differently in the future.

Question: What was the scale of the disaster impacts that Mississippi had to deal with following Hurricane Katrina?

Answer: There were an estimated 60,000 damaged or destroyed homes in the coastal counties, and this was largely due to the fact that Katrina’s storm surge sent water into places where no one, including FEMA, had ever envisioned water going. So Mississippians first saw that recapturing housing stock was going to be the biggest challenge. Since no one anticipated a surge of this scope, many of those households were not covered by flood insurance, a fact we addressed in our Homeowners Assistance Program.

Our infrastructure was almost completely inoperable along the coast. Key roads and bridges were destroyed. Police stations, fire stations, public works were severely hampered. On the economic side, recovering businesses were left without basic utilities, but even when those utilities were restored the workers were displaced. This destruction, although obviously most acute in the coastal counties, continued well inland as Hurricane Katrina’s winds sustained hurricane strength well over 150 miles inland. Of the 3 million people in our state, about 1 million suffered damages wrought by Hurricane Katrina. One-third of all Mississippians were touched directly by this storm.

Initial efforts to initiate long-term disaster recovery were not successful. What mistakes were made that limited the ability to jump-start recovery programs?

Emergency Management’s previous coverage of Hurricane Katrina includes:

Hurricane Katrina Hero Carries Lessons Learned to Future Challenges in Harris County, Texas

Gulf Coast Rebuilding After Hurricane Katrina Means Developing the Work Force

Re-Entry Plans Aid Repopulation After Mass Evacuation

'Worst School District' Gets a Facelift After Katrina
The state initially underestimated the complexities of disbursing federal assistance dollars on this scale, specifically the more than $5 billion in discretionary recovery funding Congress appropriated to the state through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) CDBG program. There was an assumption that we could administrate our housing, infrastructure and economic development recovery initiatives via the existing state CDBG structure and just do it on a larger scale. But that proved untenable. We needed more staff. And we needed a staff to specifically become adept in administrating what we call “KCDBG” or Katrina CDBG.

It really is a different animal entirely than the normal CDBG appropriation that each state gets. Having a staff dedicated to the specific task is crucial. Initially the state did not have enough supervision over contractors or a dedicated division solely responsible for disaster recovery. This situation combined with contracts that lacked performance requirements and strong remedies caused some major challenges for the state because victims were not receiving assistance in a timely or effective manner.
Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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