On April 28, 2014, workers in the state of the art communications control room at the University of Mississippi Medical Center spent 10 hours glued to their monitors, coordinating the medical response to an EF-4 tornado that struck Louisville.
By the time it was over, 10 people were dead and dozens more had been injured and the Winston County Medical Center was rendered useless. The UMMC control room, known as MED-COM, played a vital role in helping transport nursing home patients and playing traffic controllers for emergency medical personnel and vehicles on the ground and medical helicopters in the air.
Six months after the storm, the Associated Press estimated that 480 homes were destroyed and another 1,575 damaged. Some 950 applications were filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and there were some $207 million worth of insured losses, AP reported.
After the storm, Congress approved $43.5 million for rebuilding, including grants to local governments and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) as well as to the Mississippi State Department of Health to offset the agency’s costs to help get medical services back up and running.
With the start of a new hurricane season and the ever-present threat of severe weather in Mississippi, coupled with a new round of legislative budget cuts and other changes to state fiscal policy, some in the emergency-response community are wondering whether Mississippi is equipped to handle another disaster on the scale of Louisville — or worse.
The answer, agency officials say, at least in the short term, is yes.
“Funding and budget is not going to play into this,” said Jonathan Wilson, chief administrative officer for UMMC, of the medical center’s role in responding to natural disasters. “We’re going to do the right thing for the state and do the right thing for people.”
Wilson joins other emergency-response officials such as Lee Smithson, the executive director of MEMA, in offering assurances that public safety will not be compromised by budget issues. But it’s clear that confusion could abound in the aftermath of a disaster.
Smithson, along with Dr. Mary Currier of the health department, first sounded the alarm during budget negotiations in late April. Smithson’s agency received a cut of 15 percent; Currier’s 13.6 percent. In addition to the cuts themselves, both raised questions about the impact of a new state law that forbids state agencies from making and receiving payments.
More than a month later, many of those questions still linger as the start of a new fiscal year draws closer on July 1.
“We will make sure that the search and rescue elements that are managed by the Department of Public Safety are ready, and that my people are ready to go in and start doing a good, coordinated effort on search and rescue and all the life safety things you have to do in the immediate response,” Smithson recently told Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
Liz Sharlot, a spokeswoman for the health department said agency leaders have been trying to get more information from lawmakers, but that more questions remain than answers.
In a typical disaster situation, Mississippi agencies that respond keep track of their expenses, then submit those to MEMA to submit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Then, FEMA approves the reimbursement and cuts a check to MEMA, which disperses it among the agencies that submitted claims. In the past, the federal government has paid about 75 percent of costs for federally-declared disasters; Uncle Sam paid 100 percent of Mississippi’s costs incurred by Hurricane Katrina.
It’s the disbursement part that is now a big question mark thanks to legislation called the Budget Transparency and Simplification Act that, starting July 1, prohibits state agencies from exchanging funds between themselves.
That also could affect FEMA funds from the Louisville tornado, for which agencies that filed claims two years ago still have not been reimbursed.
That cloud of uncertainty in turn ripples outward to agencies and nonprofits that assist with disaster response.
Suzanne Scales, director of operations for Volunteer Mississippi, said volunteers can represent up to three quarters of a response team. In addition to coordinating nonprofit and individual volunteers, Volunteer Mississippi also oversees charitable donations in the event of a disaster and assists with processing work orders.
So, lack of fiscal clarity for key state agencies that respond to disasters makes it difficult for her organization to figure out how to support the government agencies they work with.
“Everything is on kind of shaky ground. We just don’t know,” Scales said.
Capitol budget writers have said they are working with agency heads to bring clarity to the budget picture and that making emergency appropriations could be an option if necessary.