Transcribed Remarks by Governor Haley Barbour and
Executive Director of MEMA Robert Latham
MEMA Press Conference
September 5, 2005
5:03 p.m.

Governor Haley Barbour: “Thank you. First I want to thank Greg (inaudible), who has been signing for us at all these briefings to make it easier for people who are hearing-impaired. We appreciate you, Greg. He says my accent is a little hard at times.

Let me just start off by saying this morning and early afternoon, we met with about 200 local elected officials that included about three people from each of the 33 counties that are most affected; two people from each of the municipalities or larger municipalities within those 33 counties; and all the legislators from or who represent part of those 33 counties. So, we had a little over 200 people in Poplarville at Pearl River Community College, where we had a briefing that lasted something over two hours. FEMA, MEMA, Department of Public Safety, the National Guard, Department of Transportation, the Department of Health, and each one of the major utilities starting with Mississippi Power, Entergy Mississippi, Bellsouth, Cellular South, and the Rural Electric Power Association was going to be briefed, but Hobson Wade, who’s briefing for them, hit his head getting on the helicopter and busted it wide-open, so we sent him back to get his head sewn up. Of course, they are a very important part of what’s going on in these affected counties. The loss of electrical power is one of the big issues, one of the big obstacles for most of the counties. The way we worked it, we had three different periods when we allowed questions, answers, comments, and complaints. I thought it was very good. People got to ask the questions on their mind, and bring up the problems that they felt like their areas were having to deal with. We had a break where we let people individually visit with people from MEMA and FEMA and the Guard and the other areas. I thought it was very useful. I think people who are decision-makers in the counties and municipalities are able to go home with a lot more information, better understanding, and better knowledge of how to get assistance and tell their constituents how to get assistance. At the end of that meeting, the President of the United States came in and spoke to the group about 15 minutes and spent another 30 minutes speaking with people individually, shaking hands, and meeting the people who as he said were the frontline, people at ground zero—the people really dealing with the crises, the results of this disaster. I was particularly pleased that while we had a lot of questions and answers and presentations about what has been done, what we could have done better, most of the latter part of the meting was about the future, was about getting focused on recovery. It was very clear early on, these leaders are chomping at the bit to get clean-up fully underway so that rebuilding can begin. So we talked a lot about clean-up and recovery, and we talked about the importance for us to start focusing mid-term and long-term on the rebuilding, not only on the coast, but on the economy and the infrastructure of the inland counties that are very affected. The President spoke—first of all, the President made plain that while the national news media seems to be obsessed with New Orleans…As he put it, ‘Mississippi is on my mind’—to a standing ovation, I might add. And he did make it plain: ‘Look, the federal government is worried about New Orleans, worried about Louisiana, worried about Mobile and Alabama.’ But we’re ground zero. All those counties there, an area 80 miles across on the coast by itself, 150 miles deep, 33 counties, have serious impact from this storm. And he recognizes that, and he talked about some of the things he felt like we needed to do better. Some of the things he thought we were doing very well. And then he emphasized that the federal government is in here for the long haul. The federal government and the Bush Administration are in here until we get this finished. In fact, he said ‘I want to come back in three years and see what we’ve gotten done.’ But I assure you he will be back between now and then, more than once. But his focus on the future was very consistent with the ideals and the focus of most people in that room. Most of our local officials – as terrible as the storm has been – are going to continue to make sure that we find every survivor of those who didn’t survive, that we open every road, and get in water, food, ice, and supplies. We’re pretty far along in most places, and it’s time to start thinking about where we want to be, where we can be. I thought that was very, very productive; I’m very grateful to the President for coming.

The Secretary of Homeland Security was on the coast today, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs will be in Jackson and on the coast Tuesday night and Wednesday, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services will be in Meridian. There is in Meridian now a hospital center that if anybody wants to know more about it than that, they’ll have to ask Robert Latham or Phil Carlyle. We’ve put in a special crisis hospital there. We also have a significant field hospital at Keesler that we are using, and there’s a lot of preparation being done in case there is some sort of medical need in terms of any diseases resulting from the disaster, as well as to make sure that any citizens who were in or would have been in local hospitals that can’t take care of them, that there’s a place for them to go. With that, I want to call on George Dale, the Insurance Commissioner, who’s great to join us today to let him give you some insights as to what he and his organization have been working on. George.”

George Dale, Mississippi Commissioner of Insurance: “Thank you, Governor. Without a doubt, this is a big storm. I’m not sure we have ever witnessed anything like this in my lifetime, not only the size but perhaps the cost. With the insurance industry geared up to try to respond to something of this size, it’s going to be a challenge. I’ve gotten an email from one of the top officials (inaudible) which is one of the larger (inaudible) insurance companies of the world, stating that ‘we feel like at this time that this is a manageable financial responsibility.’ I’ve had conversations with the head of the American Property Insurance Association of America, which is a trade organization of most of the property insurance companies in the United States. At this point of time, they feel comfortable they can deal with the response financially to the losses they’ve incurred. With that said, there are going to be some people that do not have coverage for whatever the reason. My job, the job of the Mississippi Insurance Department, is that we’re going to see that the contracts of the policies that these people took out is adhered to by the insurance companies. We intend to do that. But let me say again, there will be some people that do not, for whatever reason, have coverage. We need to reach out to those with low-interest loans, grants, federal programs, and federal assistance for those people so they can build back.

The height of irresponsibility during this time is when we’re still finding our way in this very terrible situation when politicians or quote “public officials” make public statements that turn out to be irresponsible or often false, when they know what they’re saying is a little bit slanted at best. I encourage my contemporary politicians to be mindful that they know what they’re talking about when they make a public statement of what they’re going to do on behalf of their voters. That’s irresponsible, and let’s try not to do that. Give out the best info you can, be as positive as you can, but always be truthful, even when it hurts.”

Governor Barbour: “Thanks, Commissioner. I’m also going to give you a minute for General Harold Cross, the Adjutant General of the National Guard, to give you an update of the magnitude of the National Guard’s response and the geographical spread of that response.”

Adjutant General of Mississippi National Guard, Harold Cross: “Thank you, Governor. As we speak, we’ve got about 5,500 national guardsman along the gulf coast; we’re moving the battle space north. We’re spreading out a lot of troops, about 3,000 to be specific, into towns and cities. Any mayor or any sheriff that requests military police help or reaction force help can have it now. We rolled those up this afternoon and tomorrow, so they’ll be coming into towns and cities to assist law enforcements. They’ll be in places like gas lines, but they’ll also be there to help the communities, not just for civil unrest but to deliver supplies or do things that would clear some pathways, so they’ll have help almost immediately. We have about 13,000 national guardsmen in all areas in this affected area, and will go up to about 15,000. They’ve done a magnificent job. We have an airlift going immediately for the last four days, with 350 shortage per day, by helicopter, looking for target spot opportunities for getting food and water to people.

I might mention parenthetically that sadly we had to bury a soldier today that lost his life at the beginning of the hurricane, Sergeant Joshua Russell, who was killed coming in off a rescue when the winds were still 85 miles per hour, killed by a lightwire falling on him. His last moments on this earth were spent helping other people. Remember him and his family in your prayers. Thank you, Governor.”

Governor Barbour: “Thank you General. Questions?”

Q&A

Question: “What’s the status of gas deliveries in the city? And what about the State?”

Answer: “Well, I can’t tell you what it is in the city. It looks like for emergency vehicles and fuel for emergency response, including police, fire, et cetera, that we’re in pretty good shape now. The last 72 hours has gotten better and better and better. The reopening of the pipelines, the Collins tank farm, work done by the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), by the Coast Guard, by FEMA, they’ve all come together. There may be a police car or fire truck here or there, but generally we look like we’re in pretty good shape. We’ve gotten…a lot of (inaudible) reserves, which has allowed us to turn some fuel loose that has been tied up for emergency response, to be allowed to go back into commercial distribution, because now the pipelines are operating at pretty high percentages of capacity, and at least one of them is operating at higher capacity than before the storm. There is a considerable amount of fuel that is available to go into the commercial market. Now having said that, Labor Day weekend is historically the weekend when Americans drive more than any other weekend of the year. So we’ve got the peak demand weekend. Secondly, we’ve got a lot of generators running in the affected areas that are not normally running because normally they’re not needed because the electricity’s up. The power companies seem to be—well, the power companies are making a lot of progress in getting the electricity back on, though it’s going to be several days before we get back to anything close to 100%. So, we’ve still got some fuel demands for generators that are unusual.

Particularly, I’m concerned about the chicken houses. You know, poultry is our number one agricultural product and this time of the year, chicken houses need to be cool for the chickens to survive, much less thrive. That’s something we’ve been working on a lot. But having said all that, we’re ahead of where we were.

As you look at gas lines, they seem to be much shorter; more stations seem to be open. I hope one thing that helps the gas lines is that people who don’t need gas, aren’t going to try to buy it, because they’re afraid there won’t be any. We’ve been having people who have half a tank of gas going to sit in line for three hours, burning up another quarter of a tank and having to buy three-quarters of a tank when they had a half a tank to start with, and that actually exacerbates the problem. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t places where fuel seems to be a significant problem. But overall it’s better. I have to congratulate the FEMA people and a lot of others because our situation has improved the last couple of days while the national situation has gotten worse. Remember, when this storm came through the gulf, it knocked out a lot of production of petroleum in the gulf. It also knocked out a lot of refining capacity, including the Chevron Texaco Refinery at Pascagoula, which refines 325,000 barrels a day, and it’s offline because of this storm. So, nationally we have less supply, and yet I think our situation in Mississippi has improved over the last 2-3-4 days, though it’s a long way from back to normal. Getting electricity back on is going to really help, though the Rural Electric Power Association will probably not be able to get it back on as fast as the investor-all utility. I may have given more than you wanted to know.”

Question: “What would you say in response to those who suggest the state and federal response has been too slow?”

Answer: “When you have the most massive natural disaster in the country’s history—a disaster that literally destroys all the infrastructure of an 80-mile swath of the Gulf Coast and much of the infrastructure inland for as much as 50 miles, plus a lot of the infrastructure in southwest Mississippi that wasn’t even in the line of the storm, you have to realize that there are going to be a lot of shortages: Inabilities to communicate, to provide electricity, and to provide the services we’re accustomed to. That’s certainly what happened here. Starting Monday, you had MDOT, the Highway Patrol, the National Guard, pushing through to the Coast before the storm fully abated. We had the U.S. Coast Guard rescuing people, and ultimately the Coast Guard, through Friday at least, had rescued 1,700 Mississippians by helicopter—hoisted them up off the roofs of their houses or out of their yards. Did they rescue everybody? Nope. Were there people who weren’t found until later? The Mayor of Bay St. Louis—not mayor, Sheriff—of Hancock County told me yesterday that they had found two living people in the rubble on Thursday—on Friday, actually. Do I wish we had found those people on Tuesday? Yes sir. Am I glad we found them? I’m happy about that. I am very proud of the work that’s been done not only by the state agency employees, but by the local governments, fire departments, police departments, and I’m very grateful for all the federal government’s done. The federal government has been a good partner in this; they’ve been a great partner in this. You’ve heard me say that there’s not been a day gone by where we’ve got as much done as I would like to have gotten done. Everyday, we’ve made real progress and for the people with 20/20 hindsight, particularly those in the national news media, I invite them to come down to try it, see how they think they’d do. It’s pretty easy for the vultures to the fly around after the fact—but it’s a lot different for the man in the arena. Like these firefighters, and these Coasties hanging out of helicopters saving people’s lives, and these highway patrolmen and policemen. That’s how I’d respond.”

Question: “We have so many in rural counties saying they’re still not getting power, water, and the like. Where can they go—anywhere specific?”

Answer: “There’s no question that in the rural areas served by the rural electric power associations, that their infrastructure, particularly distribution lines, are hurt on a larger scale. It’s just physically so much bigger—it’s so much farther between houses than it is inside the city limits. It’s going to be a long time before electricity is restored in some rural areas. Mississippi Power said in briefing today that they believe they will return power to everyone of their customers who can take it by Saturday, which, to me, is breathtakingly remarkable. Virtually their whole system was put out. But having said that, they’re going to have thousands and thousands of customers who can’t take the power, because their house isn’t there anymore.”

Question: “Is there a centralized location they should check?”

Answer: “They should check with their rural electric power association about when their electricity will be on. If they need a place to go to, most counties have a shelter of some sort. If the county doesn’t have a shelter, there are other shelters in surrounding counties. We still have—(inaudible)—we still have 15,000 people still in shelters. So if people in a rural area, where the county doesn’t have a shelter, the county can tell them where the nearest shelter is. Or fortunately we have lots and lots of people staying with family and friends because they don’t have electricity. And usually you can’t have water if you don’t have electricity, because electricity is necessary for the water pumping capacity for the water system. So, that’s the best thing they can do is to start off with their local county emergency management, or emergency operation centers.”

Question: “We’ve heard there was a dispute over the state governments being overtaken by the federal government; in other words, the federal government has tried to take authority over the state military—like in Louisiana. What’s your response to this?”

Answer: “I have no knowledge about Louisiana. The National Guard has been incredibly cooperative with us. NorthCom—is that what we call it? NorthCom has been very cooperative with us. We don’t need them to command the troops here; the guard troops in our state are under the command of our Adjutant General. He doesn’t need someone else to do it for him. But I think if you check with the guard units, we’ve probably had more than forty states give us support from their guards, and probably more than fifteen that actually have guardsmen boots on the ground here or have had them on the ground here, all under our command. We don’t need somebody else to command them. If we did, we’d say so. We’re grateful, really grateful that the states and the DOD have been willing to give us what is now about 12,000 national guard already. We’ll hit 15,000 before it’s over.”

Question: “Have you had any requests from federal government to take authority, though?”

Answer: “The federal government has never felt the need to do that here. Thank y’all.”

Question: “I have a MEMA question.”

Answer: “Sure! Have a MEMA question.”

Question: “Mr. Latham, (inaudible)”

Robert Latham: “I think I got that message before I left early this morning, and that was not MEMA. I think it was the county, or the sheriff, working with the American Red Cross, saw the need to be able to move them to the coliseum, as opposed to manning two different shelters. That’s my understanding of what happened. It’s not MEMA.”

Question: (Inaudible)

Answer: “I think he said it was the sheriff or the Red Cross. Any other questions?”

Question: “How did you decide how to craft your responses as to the federal government—some say that you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar…?”

Answer: “I didn’t do either one of those. George (Phillips), come on up here. I didn’t do either one of those. In fact, my phone has been ringing from the beginning, calling, wanting to help—from liberal, Democrat governors to conservative, Republican governors. They have said things and I’ve had governors say ‘you can’t tell me no’ and they’ve taken off. But our view is to tend to our business. To spend my focus and time with the management team here, focused on ground zero. We’ve had great people on the ground; the people who deserve the most credit are the people on the ground: firemen, policemen. But a lot of the people on the ground are not people from that county—people have come down from Batesville and Senatobia and Desoto County, people who came down from Ohio, Florida, or wherever. That’s where the great stories are here. But my focus has been on how to help manage that, and get them the most resources, and to make sure we’re managing resources well. I get all these questions all the time about there’s not enough water in X, not enough ice in Y. And almost always, there is something to that. That’s why we’ve just got to manage this deal, and try to wrestle this bear down to the ground, and that’s what we’re doing. And we’re doing it with the help of a lot of good people. And the federal government most of the time has been forced to say we’re pushing this towards you. Have there been times when we didn’t get as much as we wanted of this or that? Yes sir. There have been. But, (inaudible) has been overwhelming, but millions of MREs, ice, water, that we received. So, I don’t see this about politics. I went down there today with 200 something elected officials. Most of them probably Democrats, but there wasn’t any talk about politics there. There was talk about ‘hey, here’s what we need to do and here’s where we’re going.’ And that’s how we have looked at it. We haven’t looked at it like ‘I’m going to be whiney and I’ll get more’; or ‘I’m going to act like Tarzan and I’ll get more.’ We’ve been saying ‘what do you need to do to try to get the job done.’ Thank y’all.”

###

 


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Governor Haley Barbour
P.O. Box 139 Jackson, MS 39205
Phone: 601.359.3150 Fax: 601.359.3741
         

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