Natural disasters can happen anywhere at any time. Fires, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes are all occurring more frequently and with more veracity. One small county in Mississippi is recovering from the damage caused by an EF4 tornado in March and is still trying to implement a county-wide emergency management system that is equitable and can hold up in the face of disaster.
On March 24, 2023, an EF4 tornado ripped its way through rural Sharkey County, MS. This rural, remote county of about 3,800 people lacks adequate systems to communicate with first responders, emergency managers, and the public in a timely and efficient manner during an emergency. Sharkey County’s public warning system and communication channels proved to be deficient, unable to reach all residents.
Many rural areas have limited or spotty internet and cell phone coverage. If coverage does go out during a power outage, power is typically restored to areas that are more densely populated first. The notification system that was in place in Sharkey County to warn community members of emergent and potential life-threatening situations was ineffective and structurally biased. It was destroyed by winds during attempts to warn and alert the community of the danger at hand. In a community that experiences hurricanes and hurricane force winds often, the emergency notification system needs to be able to withstand hurricane-force winds.
So how does a small diverse county meet both the known and unknown needs of its community members and start to plan for and implement an emergency management system that is not only effective but accounts for the diverse needs of the community?
A community assessment and Civic Infrastructure Scan is a good first step, helping to identify gaps in the emergency management system. Sharkey County has elected to participate in a full civic engagement process to assess and develop an inclusive emergency communications plan. Sharkey County is starting from the ground up to ensure that a working emergency management system is in place and that the chosen system can withstand the demands of an emergency, all while working with stakeholders in the community to discover where potential infrastructure weaknesses are and what is needed to address those before another potential disaster.
When the process is finished, it is anticipated that there will be enhanced emergency communications for all 3,800 residents, 790 businesses and community organizations, and 1,400 school-aged children residing in Sharkey County. Additionally, through this process, Sharkey County and the municipalities within look forward to having a better connection with their community members, resulting in greater satisfaction and trust in county leadership. By bringing all residents and stakeholders to the table, Sharkey County, MS is on its way to establishing a more efficient and equitable emergency management system.
If your community is looking to create or amend a similar plan, this recent ICMA study determined five components that are crucial for advancing equity in climate resilience efforts.