Book Review: “Katrina, Mississippi: Voices from Ground Zero”

Review of Katrina, Mississippi: Voices from Ground Zero by NancyKay Sullivan Wessman.  Published by Triton Press, the 312 page softbound copy of this book (ISBN 978-193694650-1) is $17.95.

Reviewer: Dr. Robert E. Tabler, Jr. Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Global Health, University of So. Florida. Tampa. FL

This book is exactly what its title says it is, a nonfictional account of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated Southern Mississippi on August 29, 2005. Mrs. Wessman, who worked as communications director for the Mississippi State Department until 2005, personally knew many of the characters in this book. Her book tells the story of what really happened in Mississippi before, during, and after Katrina’s landfall in the words of those professionals responsible for the communities response to and recovery from the storm. As accorded by Wessman this book documents the players’ personal and professional views as they reveal their alliances and actions, their concerns and issues, their truths and consequences. As someone who has been a volunteer for, worked in, and taught emergency management since 1995, I could readily identify with the characters in this compelling account of Hurricane Katrina.

While many people think of New Orleans when they hear of Hurricane Katrina. The truth is the storm missed the City that Care Forgot and instead struck Mississippi. Katrina hit the same area that the Category 5 Hurricane Camille, demolished in 1969. Many residents of southern Mississippi did not evacuate for Katrina because their homes survived Camille, which was the benchmark for their decision to evacuate or not. However, due to coastal development, the fact that Camille was much smaller in size and a faster moving storm, the slow moving 450 mile wide Katrina and its 28 foot water surge reached further inland (between 6 and 12 miles from the coastline) and resulted in much more damage. With this in mind it has been stated that Camille was responsible for more deaths in Katrina, than when it hit in 1969. Every county in Mississippi was declared a federal disaster area and 238 people lost their lives.

The situation in New Orleans made for good news and consequently the federal government initially sent most all of the commodities for survival and recovery to Louisiana. Leaving Mississippi on its own to recovery. One of the great difficulties faced after the disaster by local emergency management and public health officials was dealing with the news media. The news media wanted higher counts of the dead and missing to make for a better story. As a result, emergency management and public health had trouble getting the facts out, to the public.

One thing that the book makes clear, which was that no matter how big, all disasters are local. Thus the response to all disasters should be driven by locals. It emphasizes that professionals who respond to disasters should exchange their business cards before a storm. As stated by one of the players: “We need to know who’s here and how each of us will operate …”

One of the issues Wessman identifies was that in some states, the legislation appoints directors of large governmental agencies. Sometimes these individuals have no experience, in that discipline and have political bondage, questing the professional, political and personal affiliations of the appointee. Survivors also describe how representatives from the Mississippi state government set up their own EOC and tried to run the show, without communicating with county representatives. A survivor describes: “… it was more about let me pat myself on the back and be the big guy.” According to another survival: “They didn’t know; they weren’t around. … Like, I want to be in charge; I want my name on it.”

This story is told by survivors of the storm, both professional and those who refused to evacuate, material that no writer could dream up. It includes heart wrenching stories from people who refused to allow the storm to kill them, including children and elderly individuals. It speaks of the responsibility of parents to insure the safety of their children and pets.

In her book Wessman, gives an alphabetical list of 44 champions, of the storm. Yet I believe, most of these champions would tell you, they were professionals who did their job when called upon. These professionals and volunteers maintained good situational awareness, enabling them to correctly respond to a changing state of affairs, a reality in any major disaster. As one survivor stated: “It was one of those classic moments in history when you’re proud to be an American—it was a can-do attitude.” Many professional and volunteers continued to work knowing their homes had been destroyed and not knowing if their families were safe. A crisis, brings out the best and the worst in people, depending on their character. Along with the champions there were also looters, who were taking advantage of the situation, and had to be controlled by authorities.

The writer focuses on the two hardest hit counties in southern Mississippi: Harrison and Hancock. Around 200 hundred people in the Harrison County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and 35 in the Hancock’s EOC rode out the worst of the storm. A decision, which would almost cost their lives. Yet how many lives would have been spared, if these emergency workers had heeded the advice from representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and evacuated? Upon hearing their EOCs had been evacuated, would more citizens have evacuated? No one knows for sure. The lesson learned here is that when told to evacuate, one should not second guess that decision. For the decision, to evacuate is not made lightly, by emergency management.

The only complaint I have about this book is that because the story is told by a multitude of people, it can be redundant at times. As the players look at the same event from their point of view. This might have been less of an issue, if each of the 30 different chapters had titles, to guide the reader.

All-in-all, this book tells a great story, which should be read by both professionals and students in emergency management, public health, nursing and medicine. Wessman also provides an excellent description of the emergency management system, as it currently exists in the United States. One day this book will make a thrilling movie.

Where and when will the next monster hurricane strike the US? No one knows for sure. The only sure thing that it will happen again and again.

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