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franklin county times

Where's the state's hurricane evacuation plan?

By Staff
Terry R. Cassreino / Assistant Managing Editor
June 1, 2003
The 2003 hurricane season opens today and the state still doesn't have a plan in place to help South Mississippi and Southeast Louisiana residents use Interstate 59 to escape a killer storm.
Don't bother to ask the governor's office, whose spokesman bristles when reminded that Gov. Ronnie Musgrove nixed a plan last year to use all I-59 lanes for moving evacuees north toward Hattiesburg and Meridian.
And don't ask Robert Latham Jr., executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. He won't discuss details of an evacuation plan until he and Louisiana officials are ready to unveil it.
Latham, however, did make this point: The final plan is so effective that it would be used today if a killer storm was bearing down on the South Mississippi and Southeast Louisiana coastlines.
When asked what he meant or quizzed for more details, Latham clammed up. Wait for the official announcement, he said, which could come as soon as Monday or Tuesday.
Meanwhile, residents in South Mississippi and Southeast Louisiana wait some patiently, others impatiently to learn what could happen when the next big one aims for the Gulf Coast.
Musgrove's move
First, some background: Last fall, Musgrove nixed an agreement between Mississippi and Louisiana to use north and south lanes of I-59 to move evacuees out of the path of a killer storm.
The plan essentially would have turned I-59 into a four-lane, one-way highway from the Louisiana state line north to Hattiesburg and possibly beyond. The goal: Evacuate people safely and quickly.
Mississippi transportation officials, including Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, heralded the plan as a novel way to move folks away from vulnerable, low-lying areas.
The biggest benefit would go to New Orleans and surrounding communities. That city, much of which sits 5 feet below sea level, hasn't had a direct hit from a hurricane since Betsy struck in 1965.
With more than 1 million people in and around New Orleans and thousands more along I-59 in cities like Picayune and Poplarville evacuees need a fast escape.
Without a doubt, using I-59 makes the most logical sense.
But Latham said last year's plan would not have worked. He said it would have used 295 of the state's 315 Highway Patrol officers to monitor traffic flow, possibly hampering evacuation on the Mississippi Coast.
Hall's take
Hall dismissed those concerns. He said law officers from the Mississippi Department of Transportation, as well as from cities and counties along I-59, could have helped.
But Hall's hands are tied. He and MDOT have little say in the hurricane issue even though, as he put it, "we are talking about saving lives here."
So all anyone can do is wait and see what Latham and company unveil this week. And Mississippi needs to hope the final plan will mend frayed relationships with one of its friendliest neighbors.
Meanwhile, hurricane experts predict a busier season than last year one they say could see 11 to 15 named storms, including two to four major hurricanes with winds greater than 111 mph, before the season ends Nov. 30.