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LEMA ready to act in emergencies

By By Steve Gillespie /staff writer
Oct. 7, 2002
When Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili aimed for the Gulf Coast, Lauderdale County was ready to help evacuees and prepare for possible bad weather in East Central Mississippi.
Clarence Butler director of the Lauderdale Emergency Management Agency and coordinator of the county's volunteer fire departments played a major role in the preparations.
Butler talked about that and other topics last week during a meeting with The Meridian Star editorial board.
The Meridian Star: When there is a strong hurricane coming through can we expect a lot of wind damage or torrential rains here?
Clarence Butler: You can expect a tremendous amount of rainfall. Our biggest concern this far off of the coastline is tornadoes. A tornado sometimes can be just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than a hurricane.
A lot of our volunteer firefighters and volunteers with LEMA are storm spotters. Once word goes out that there are possible tornadoes in our area, these people go out and watch the clouds.
If a tornado is spotted in our area through our firefighters radio system, we notify as many people in our community as we can and they, in turn, notify the public.
We're very prone to have tornadoes here. If a tornado strikes, our role is to confer with the board of supervisors. If it's needed, we ask the board to declare a state of emergency and this gives us a direct line to the Federal Emergency Management Agency through the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency for federal funds.
We have trained emergency medical responders throughout Lauderdale County and the city of Meridian, mostly through fire departments. And we call on these people for our first line of medical response along with Metro Ambulance.
The Star: How far back, before Tropical Storm Isidore came, did you start preparing for it?
Butler: When that storm was two days out from the Coast, we were on the phone with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and also with the American Red Cross.
We set up an information post at Highway 11 and Interstate 20/59 for evacuees to get information if they wanted to seek shelter in Meridian or Lauderdale County.
We have a mobile trailer we mark as an emergency information center at Stuckey's so people traveling north can see it.
The Star: What do you think about the contraflow controversy with the Mississippi Department of Transportation? People in South Louisiana are upset about Mississippi's sudden decision not to participate in the plan to make all of the Interstate 20/59 traffic northbound for evacuees.
Butler: In the state of Mississippi, I don't think we have but one cut-through made on the Interstate for contraflow and it's going to take an enormous amount of manpower to be able to block the exits to keep people from going South on the southbound lanes.
We will have to have people stationed at each one of those exits, wherever they may be, to make sure no one gets on it. If the storm is severe enough, I anticipate it will take place.
The Star: What kind of preparations does the Lauderdale Emergency Management Agency make?
Butler: We set up shelters for evacuees in conjunction with the American Red Cross. We use mostly churches that have activity centers for shelters.
The Star: Aside from hurricanes, what other natural disasters is LEMA prepared for?
Butler: We are a branch of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and we are here to mitigate the effect of a hazard, to prepare for measures to be taken that will preserve life and minimize damage. We respond during emergencies to provide necessary assistance and to establish a recovery system in order to return the community to its normal state of affairs.
Lauderdale County and the state of Mississippi has a plan in place that defines who does what, when, where and how in order to mitigate, prepare for, respond to and recover from the effects of war, natural disaster, technological accidents and other major incidents.
We also make people aware of hazards as they come through.
The Star: What is your role as fire coordinator for the Lauderdale County volunteer fire departments?
Butler: I basically coordinate all of the volunteer fire departments. We have 21 departments throughout Lauderdale County, and my main role there is keeping everything together, to keep everything running and to keep insurance rates down as much as possible working with the volunteers. The fire departments elect their own fire chiefs.
In Lauderdale County we encourage firefighters to go through a volunteer certification class, which is about a 48-hour training class so we can train them how to fight a fire and also how to protect themselves. The county pays for the training. The county also pays for all of the fire trucks, fuel, insurance and about 90 percent of the equipment. The departments are still asked to furnish some of their equipment through fund-raisers and things of that nature.
The Star: Are all of the 21 volunteer fire departments in good shape, compared to where they were a few years ago?
Butler: Certainly. In 1990, upon coming to work for Lauderdale County, one of the first things I recognized was that our equipment was substandard. I made a plan to try to upgrade our equipment, and every fire department in Lauderdale County has a Class A pumper now with a minimum 3,000 gallon tank of water. Our board of supervisors has been very supportive of fire service in this county since long before my time.
We've just completed updating some of our communication equipment for all the departments in Lauderdale County. We did that over a five-year period. Now some of the breathing apparatus we have is outdated, but we've got a plan already in effect with the board to buy new breathing apparatus for our volunteer fire departments. I think we had 20 to 25 approved in the budget this year. So over the next few years we anticipate having all new breathing apparatus on all of our fire trucks.
The Star: Did the drought this summer lead to more fires in Lauderdale County?
Butler: Not this year. A couple of years ago we had a real bad drought and we asked the board of supervisors to enact a no burn ban, which the state Legislature gave them the power to do through the Forestry Commission. We were just on the verge of asking them to do that again a couple of weeks ago when we got all the rain. We were beginning to have a number of brush fires.