Saturday, October 15, 2005

Walmart in Waveland, Mississippi

Bill Steigerwald of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review believes the federal government could learn a few lessons from Wal-Mart when it comes to disaster preparedness. I agree.

This is a picture of the Wal-Mart in Waveland, Mississippi on the day that it re-opened for business. On the day I took this picture, Wal-Mart was advertising that it was open for business on the local radio stations. Meanwhile, FEMA, the National Guard, and the Red Cross had packed up and left town the night before as Hurrican Rita was blowing by us in the Gulf.

Wal-Mart's re-opening was quite significant for Waveland because it was the ONLY place to spend money in town. Sure, many residents received an emergency check from FEMA or even the Red Cross in some cases, but there was no place to spend money; none at all. Before Wal-Mart, there was no place to buy things like gas, food, or clothes; not in Waveland, Bay Saint Louis, or the surrounding area. You basically had to drive out towards Gulfport, that is, if your car wasn't overturned in a ditch or buried under a pile of rubble somewhere.

The circumstances under which Wal-Mart re-opened in Waveland made an impact on the residents of Waveland as well. For two days, Wal-Mart, the Convoy of Hope (rating) compound, and the Carolinas Medical Center were the only services remaining in Waveland at the time. In contrast, when the Red Cross and federal services packed up and left the area, they drained every gallon of diesel fuel in the coastal area, making it hard for the Convoy (or any other) trucks to get their food and re-supply shipments to us. That made for some dicey moments with a tent full of residents and one small pallet of canned goods to go around. I will say that the National Guard was the first to return AND saved the day with several pallets of Meals Ready-to-Eat (MRE). Those MREs provided practical and psychological relief to the tension felt by the residents and volunteers alike.

Most of the residents thought neither FEMA nor the Red Cross would be returning. Indeed, FEMA was not very popular at all. However, I must be quick to say that this is not a FEMA bashing thread. It was through FEMA that Fire and Police services from other states were arranged for Waveland. FEMA also provided the church compound with drums of diesel fuel without which we would have been dead in the water. We were going through 350 gallons a day. So, FEMA does certain things very well, like arranging public safety, shipping drums of diesel fuel, moving huge generators, forklifts, and other logistical nightmares. On the other hand, there is simply no way FEMA or any other government organization (aside from the military) could come close to competing with the volunteer services I saw in places like Waveland, Mississippi.

Perhaps if there were some sort of initiative to capture the synergy between the two, disaster response in the United States would be that much better. Who would oppose that and for what reasons? That is a debate I would like to see in our national and state legislatures.


Anonymous Carl said...

I am familiar with the Waveland/Bay St. Louis area and know the devastation it has suffered. I have over 60 relatives, inlaws and friends all along the Gulf Coast who were directly affected by Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately they all survived the storm although all suffered varying property damages. My wife grew up in Gulfport, MS and my inlaws still live there (although they lost their home due to the hurricane and are now staying with my sister-in-law still waiting for a FEMA trailer).

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