ITD's Koon joins effort to assist Mississippi
By Michael Keckler
Florida’s quick action was coordinated by Mississippi state officials using a tool called the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC). Ratified by Congress in 1996, EMAC allows a state to request aid from other states quickly and efficiently.
“With Katrina, we knew we’d have to fight our way through the hurricane to get resources south to the Gulf Coast immediately,” said Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Executive Director Robert Latham. “Using EMAC, we were able to get help on the ground much faster by bringing it in behind the storm.”
To date, 46 states – including Idaho – have sent more than 23,000 people to Mississippi to provide everything from Incident Management Teams and building inspectors to firefighters, police officers and community relations personnel. Most of the help came from National Guard units, which deployed more than 14,000 people from throughout the country.
Cathy Koon, public information specialist for ITD’s District 6 office in Rigby, was among the EMAC volunteers. She was joined by Idaho colleagues Mike Keckler from the Idaho Department of Water Resources, and Jaime Fuhrman of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
“I don’t think any state, regardless of its size or capability, could have dealt with something like Katrina on its own,” Latham said. “EMAC provides a mechanism to utilize resources from other states, and that creates a more thorough disaster response.”
Koon spent most of her deployment working out of the Jackson Field Office for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency’s (MEMA) public information officer. She originally was deployed to work as a field supervisor, directing a six-person staff in communities on the Gulf Coast, but the operation was scaled back because of budget concerns. Instead, Koon took over from Fuhrman as operations manager and worked directly for the MEMA public information officer.
On her initial weekend in Mississippi, Koon traveled to the Gulf Coast for a firsthand look at the devastation. She assisted local organizations with efforts to disseminate information to the public.
“I handed out fliers, answered what questions I could and took photos,” Koon said. “It was surreal – miles and miles of rubble and then a house that appeared to be untouched. It’s hard to describe how horrific it all was.”
John Puckett of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries spent a Sunday helping hurricane survivors in Pearlington, Miss. Puckett was wrapping up his two-week EMAC deployment and was struck by the shear number of people who had volunteered for the assignment.
“I’ve seen people from all corners of the United States. I think the entire country is helping out,” he said.
Steve McCausland serves as public information officer for the Maine Department of Public Safety and also answered the EMAC call.
“I am honored to help in a very small way and have been humbled by the enormity of the destruction. Mississippi will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he said.
EMAC’s roots go back to the early 1990s when the southern governors developed the Southern Regional Management Assistance Compact or SREMAC in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. In 1995, the southern governors voted to open membership to any state or territory, and EMAC was born.
Today, Hawaii is the only non-participating state. The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are members.
EMAC works because when a state makes a request for help, that state assumes responsibility for liability and commits to reimburse those states that respond. With those issues already resolved through the compact, that response, as in the case of Mississippi and Hurricane Katrina, can happen literally overnight.
Photo captions: Waveland, Miss., was reduced to rubble by Hurricane Katrina (top photo); symbols of patriotism, car magnets, lay among the ruins (upper right); Cathy Koon (left) surveys damage from the riverfront (lower right); a forest floor is strewn with the remains of a home (left).