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Disaster readiness for every community

evacuation sign
Wiggins, Mississippi, post Katrina. Image by Raven James, 2005.


Preparing for disaster is no different than preparing for success—it takes continuous planning, resources, leadership and commitment. It is my belief that the only difference is the mindset applied during the planning process. When planning for future success and growth, there is a sense of optimism, what can be if you work hard, commit, invest, persevere and ultimately, reap the rewards.  Post-disaster response planning usually initiates a feeling of desperation, survival, urgency, panic, preservation and impatience. Based on my experience, these ideas are particularly true for the rural community—places that typically do not adapt quickly to change and hold steadfastly to the “way things have always been.” But these same rural towns and communities are quick to lend a hand to a neighbor and are not afraid to work to bring their community back to life after disaster strikes—whether it is a hurricane or plant closing.

The goal of this section is to provide assistance in guiding the disaster readiness planning process for the rural community. Much of the material presented is based on personal experiences gained through my work in Wiggins/Stone County, Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Each of the five lessons presented describe strategies and detailed information from Stone County, Mississippi, where applicable. 

Lessons Learned from Wiggins/Stone County, Mississippi

Lesson One: Strategic Plans Can Be More than Dust Collectors—(so have one and keep it up to date!)

When USDA Rural Development and The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) began working in the Stone County, MS area, it was refreshing to know that some planning strategies were in place to assist in the post-Katrina recovery efforts. As Hurricane Katrina came ashore in August 2005, Stone County was well into planning for the county’s future to include identifying its threats and weaknesses and how to better position the county/city to provide for the well being, safety and quality of life of its residents. Stone County had embarked on a strategic planning process in September 2004 when the Stone County Board of Supervisors voted to utilize the services of the Mississippi Development Authority for consultation and facilitation of the development of a strategic plan.

During the strategic planning process, public meetings were held, with meetings having been publicized in local newspapers, where issues to be addressed were identified and grouped into five categories. Tasks forces were formed from participants of the public meetings which included representation from business, elected county/city officials, education, emergency management, fire departments, retirees, social services, medical services, recreation, economic development and rural water systems. Each task force focused on a specific category of concern. The tasks forces, who met twice monthly for three months, worked as teams to review research data, survey results and set goals, objectives and strategies for their specific areas of concern for the county’s and city’s future. Approximately 190 people were involved in the strategic planning process.
The Stone County Strategic Plan 2005 was released in July, just weeks before Hurricane Katrina. This proved to be an invaluable road map for the post-Katrina planning programming. In the initial leadership meeting after Hurricane Katrina, so much of the recent planning efforts were still fresh in the minds of the participants, so developing post-disaster need projects were simplified.

The strategic planning group from the county and City of Wiggins was reconvened, with many of the same individuals from the county’s strategic planning effort, to assess the county/city post-Katrina and address disaster preparedness, recovery and accommodation for the anticipated growth. Included in the post-Katrina strategic planning group were the City of Wiggins Mayor and Board of Aldermen, Stone County Board of Supervisors, EOC director, county engineer, city engineer, representatives from economic development, education, business, utilities and county/city services. The group met throughout the months of October, November and December and over the course of the three months over 200 people participated in the post-Katrina planning process. After the disaster, the facilitation team found that growth issues addressed in the strategic plan for 5 and 10 years into the future were now at the doorstep of Stone County after Hurricane Katrina. But thanks to the pre-disaster strategic planning process, responses to the disaster were grounded in the planning completed before the disaster, so they did not make hasty, reactive decisions but rather implemented proactive, community approved plans that eased the uncertainty of the post-disaster recovery.

Lesson 2: Always Maintain a Current, Approved Hazard Mitigation Plan

Another important lesson learned after Katrina was the need for a current, approved county-wide Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMP). This is not only important to provide guidance for hazard and disaster planning, but it is required to access federal and state assistance dollars after a disaster. The saying “first come, first serve” is more than applicable to receiving federal and state grants for disaster recovery. Those with an approved HMP were in-line, approved and ready to receive dollars immediately. But those counties without a hazard mitigation plan, like Stone County, were forced to complete the process before getting immediate dollars for rebuilding.

In order to fast track the HMP, the strategic planning efforts were integrated into the hazard mitigation planning activities where many of the same people were included on the HMP Committee. The County’s Hazard Mitigation planning activities began in March 2006 with the assistance of the Southern Mississippi Planning and Development District (SMPDD). The Planning Committee, which had been working on the hazard mitigation plan since March, was formally appointed by the Stone County Board of Supervisors in June 2006. Representation on the Committee included Stone County, City of Wiggins, Emergency Operations and E-911, city engineer, county engineer, fire department, police and sheriff’s department, American Red Cross, Stone County Schools, MS Power Company, electric power association, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Stone County Hospital, rural water systems, Pat Harrison Waterway District (Flint Creek Waterpark), DeSoto National Forest and Wiggins Planning/Zoning. Members were appointed based on knowledge/activities beneficial to the development of the plan and representation across the county/city.

Specifically, each jurisdiction participating in the HMP, Stone County and the City of Wiggins brought their assessment of risks and action required specific to their jurisdictional needs to the HMP Committee. The specific jurisdiction risks assessments and actions were considered in the Committee’s risk analysis and actions and included in the HMP along with the Committee’s assessment of county-wide risks and actions needed.

For non-participating jurisdictions, which include Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, the rural water systems—Sunflower Rural Water System, Stone Utility System, McHenry Rural Water System, Flint Creek Water System and New Zion Water System—and Saucier Business Improvement Association (adjoining community in Harrison County), rural fire departments and the County’s Economic Development Partnership, outreach with personal interviews and group meetings was conducted to ensure risk/actions of these jurisdictions were included. In addition, representatives of the non-participating jurisdictions were included on the HMP Committee.

The HMP Committee began meeting in March, reviewing data, information and strategies developed through other planning initiatives going on in the county/city and continued through July 2006. The first step was to identify and organize resources. Many of the HMP Committee members served on other county-wide planning initiatives to include the FEMA ESF-14 Long-term Community Recovery Plan, post-Katrina Stone County Strategic Plan and Comprehensive Development Plan activities. The overlap of committee members ensured that ideas/issues were integrated into the several planning activities taking place in the county/city. At the planning meetings, which were open to the public, the Committee discussed the process, goals and objectives for the plan, strategies, identifying and assessing the community’s critical facilities, vulnerabilities and the major hazards impacting Stone County. Committee members, which included a cross section of agencies, business, law enforcement, utilities and community leaders, were encouraged to bring risks and needs specific to their organizations.

To ensure all members of the public had ample opportunity to provide input and review the Hazard Mitigation Plan before adoption, a public hearing, announced in the local newspaper, was held with the HMP Committee meeting on July 20, 2006. Following the review of comments, the HMP Committee approved the Stone County, Mississippi Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan.

Lesson Three: Have a Prioritized Project List to Implement after the Disaster

In the wake of a major disaster, assistance is flying from everywhere but usually with specific targets. For example, a certain FEMA program may address only rebuilding of educational facilities or water/sewer development planning. In this case there is a big difference in being responsive and reactive. This is where the project list is vital—once again “first come, first serve” comes into play again. The Stone County team of leaders and facilitators developed a project list based on the subcategories of the county-wide strategic plan. The final project list is the following:   

Potential Project List: Wiggins/Stone County, Mississippi


  1. Sewer Related Projects:
    1. Study to determine condition of sewer and drainage system-City of Wiggins
    2. Expansion of sewage capacity for City of Wiggins
    3. Engineering study to determine best possible solution/location of waste treatment facility and condition of water system/lines in southern Stone County
    4. Construction of waste treatment facility in southern Stone County


  1. Water Related Projects:
    1. New water tower for City of Wiggins
    2. New water main lines for City of Wiggins
    3. Water Line Improvement for the Southern Portion of Stone County—in response to residential development


  1. Land Use Planning:
    1. Initiate the process of developing a Comprehensive Plan for Stone County through summarizing vision statement, identifying needs, and existing land use.
    2. Housing Rehabilitation Opportunities in City of Wiggins and Stone County (specifically Project Road, Dawsey Community, Sweet Beulah)
    3. Update of City of Wiggins Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code
    4. Comprehensive Flood Zone Study for Stone County/City of Wiggins


  1. Public Safety:
    1. Funding to hire full time person(s) to improve fire delivery system, insurance ratings, and assist in coordinating efforts of the volunteer fire departments.
    2. Regulatory and warning signs upgraded to reflective sheeting—county application ready, previous grant not funded
    3. Increased number of fire hydrants for Stone County Rural Water Associations—to accommodate residential growth
    4. Improve our Police Department Firing Range
    5. Building of a New City Hall—City of Wiggins


  1. Education:
    1. Comprehensive Study to determine best possible location for new schools and district lines to accommodate future growth in Stone County School System

  1. Economic Development Planning:
    1. Formulation of a Wiggins Downtown Redevelopment Plan
    2. Develop a retail targeting strategy for City of Wiggins/Stone County
    3. Entrepreneurship Development Strategy for the City of Wiggins/Stone County

  1. Quality of Life/Recreation
    1. Additional park in the City of Wiggins
    2. Improve Blaylock Park--Enlarge stage area, new fencing for tennis courts, and build sidewalks in the park
    3. Upgrade sidewalks and lighting along Pine Hill section
    4. Bike Path from Flint Creek Park to Downtown Wiggins
    5. Community Center Rehabilitation—Big Level and Magnolia
    6. Recreation/Sports complex in Stone County
    7. Walking and Bike Paths in Stone County: McHenry, Big Level and Wire Road
    8. Civic Center/Auditorium

  1. Telecommunications
    1. Assessment of broadband telecommunications service in Stone County
    2. Develop grant applications to increase broadband connectivity throughout Stone County
    3. Satellite phones for fire, emergency, and law enforcement

  1. Transportation

    1. Safer access road from U.S. Highway 49 into Perk Elementary and             MGCCC
    2. Improvement of Highway 26—from Highway 49 to Timber Ridge Road—            lighting at major intersections
    3. Bus/Van Service for Senior Citizens in areas outside of Wiggins—for         medical and shopping assistance
    4. Airport Runway Extension


After the project list was completed, it was the goal of the leadership to prepare “mini” proposals so when notice of funds became available—proposals could be submitted ASAP to secure a place “in-line.” In hindsight, the ideal situation is to develop a comprehensive project list before a major event, then adjust according to the specifics of the disaster. For example, if a tornado struck a portion of the county, projects for that region could be pulled from the list for potential funding assistance.

Lesson 4: Effective Pre-Disaster Public Relations Are Important for Post-Disaster Reponses

During the recovery efforts in Stone County/Wiggins, it became clear that formalized training programs and public announcements would have not only helped in the physical preparation, but in coping with the mental distress after the disaster. This concept is supported by numerous studies and regional disaster preparedness plans throughout the United States. Based on the St. Louis Regional Disaster Preparedness Plan (2007) several public relation strategies are identified:

  1. Coordinate efforts among public, private, and civic organizations for a sustained public awareness campaign—the plan suggests using existing programs, such as the American Red Cross “Be Ready” initiative, to maximize the resources that have been invested in preparedness education.
  2. Establish a “Disaster Preparedness Day”—the yearly event would serve as a regular reminder of past disasters and how to prepare and find information to be ready for the next event.
  3. Ask every major business to commit to promoting disaster preparation awareness within the company.


Lesson 5: Know Your Geography—Be Prepared When Disaster Becomes Opportunity

Everyone is familiar with the term—“location, location, location.” This is also important when it comes to preparation for disaster. In the case of Wiggins/Stone County, location became an economic advantage in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Being located only 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Stone County became the first-stop for the ravaged coastal cities of Biloxi and Gulfport, MS. But Stone County was not only a first-stop for shopping at the local Wal-Mart, but a first-stop for displaced persons looking for rentals and homes to purchase. Also, industry and small business developed quickly in order to serve the economic demands of the post-Katrina coastal rebuilding efforts.

It is in this fast-paced, high-growth atmosphere that land use plans, local schools and physical infrastructure are put to the test. So the lesson here is to be prepared if disaster happens next door, it can overwhelm a community as much as the disaster itself without the mechanisms to control and accommodate this type of growth.


Though there are many additional steps to preparing for disaster, the lessons presented in this research provide some practical ideas for preparing a rural community for a disaster. As a final recommendation for preparation, utilize the disaster preparedness information available at the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center ( This is an excellent resource for research, links, working papers, and other information to assist in your disaster planning efforts.


Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado at Boulder Website:

Focus St. Louis. 2007. St. Louis Disaster Preparedness Plan, Full Report and Executive Summary.

For further information on professional economic development practice

Journal of Applied Research in Economic Development
edited at the University of Southern Mississippi and Troy University
published by the Council for Community and Economic Research