Published on 09/29/05

Cleaning up Katrina

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

When Paul Williams called Don Hamilton on Thursday, Sept. 8, it wasn’t to chat about Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi needed Georgia’s help.

In just two business days, they had 13 people ready to go.

Williams is a veterinarian and Georgia Emergency Management Agency program manager, and Hamilton is a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension specialist and agrosecurity expert. They led a state agricultural response team that consisted of veterinarians, livestock/poultry specialists, an animal health technician and Extension specialists. UGA’s contribution included Hamilton, Bill Thomas, Don Shurley and Curt Lacy. Other agencies involved were the Georgia Department of Agriculture, USDA and GEMA.

On Sept. 12, the Georgia team arrived in Hattiesburg, Miss. On Sept. 20, they came home. Between those dates, the group added disaster response to their list of expertise.

“The most important thing in dealing with a disaster is attitude,” Hamilton said. “It has to be an attitude of whatever it takes to help is what needs to be done.”

The chaos following Hurricane Katrina “affirmed that there is a need for a county-by-county plan in each state,” said Bill Thomas, the team’s safety officer. Thomas, a retired Extension economist, is a grant coordinator for the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

“Every county needs to know what you’re going to do with 12 dead cows should the need arise,” he said. “They need to know who’s doing what, who’s bringing the backhoe to the party.”

Training Mississippians

Over in Mississippi, the Forrest County Multi-Purpose Center lived up to its name as it became the Mississippi Emergency Management Operations Center staging area. The Georgians joined Mississippi’s Board of Animal Health, Extension Service and Department of Agriculture, and the Humane Society of the United States as they took care of companion animals at the center.

For Hamilton, that meant 12 to 14 hours of daily situational reports and paperwork. Thomas spent long days making sure workers were healthy and didn’t keel over in the mid-90 degree heat. Others worked with operations, loaded and unloaded supply trucks, did agricultural damage assessments, oversaw livestock and poultry carcass disposal and took care of animals.

The Georgia State Agriculture Response Team was called in to relieve the Florida SART team. North Carolina came in behind Georgia.

Before the hurricane, Mississippi “was not trained on an incident command system,” Hamilton said. That was one of the Florida team’s first jobs. “When Mississippi started using it, they were sold on it.”

When Georgia’s group arrived, Mississippi Extension agents were just getting involved in the recovery process. By the time the Georgia team left, they were arranging the agricultural supply depot of everything from fencing to cat food, Thomas said.

“It’s very important that agents be involved in the assessment of need,” he said, “even if they’re just supporting the community’s mental health.”

Be prepared

Having a disaster plan is vital for both Extension agents and producers.

“Extension agents can be working with the farmers about the yo- yo period, the 72-hour period when you’re on your own,” Thomas said. “For example, farmers need to be working with their power providers to see if they are first on the line or if it’s going to be two weeks before their electricity’s back up. People come first, yes, but agriculture and animals don’t have to be put to the side.”

The Mississippi trip, “gives us a much better idea of how to actually get Georgia prepared,” Hamilton said. “… Your mission, your goals can change very quickly. You have to be ready to adapt, be flexible.”

The disaster memories will never leave Hamilton. He clicked through photos detailing the damage they saw – homes crushed as they were wiped off their foundations and a boat parked by receding flood waters next to a Burger King’s front door.

“It was amazing,” Hamilton said of Katrina’s damage. “You could ride for hours and see nothing but destruction. It’s like if everything between Athens and Atlanta was destroyed.”

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.