JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - This week, a relentless storm swept across Mississippi, causing deadly wrecks and massive power outages, disrupting water systems and leaving people without basic necessities.
And it’s still not over.
Mississippi is now entering the chaos after the storm and Governor Tate Reeves talked about the state’s response and how to repair infrastructure before another storm.
Q: I understand in order to get federal aid there’s a $4.5 million dollar threshold we have to meet. Talk about that. How is that calculated in terms of basic necessities tens of thousands of people don’t have right now?
Reeves: We did sign the emergency declaration on Sunday morning. We’ve been in constant contact with our federal partners, particularly at the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and there are very strict guidelines as to what we can count and what we cannot count in terms of damage assessments that are not unlike the guidelines that we have in place when there’s a hurricane or when there’s a tornado or when there was flooding, almost a year ago to the day of where we find ourselves today. What we will do is assess the damage and if public assistance is available, that’s one of the categories. Public assistance typically goes to help restore infrastructure and things that may be destroyed by a federally declared emergency, and another category is individual assistance, and that’s where we are actually able to provide help on an individual basis utilizing the Stafford act and federal resources. Again, we don’t know for certain at this time if we’re gonna meet those thresholds. A lot of it is gonna determine when we’re able to get out and about and assess what all the real damage is from this very winter storm. What we do know is there is significant damage out there, a lot of people are struggling, a lot of people are hurting, everything from power outages to water systems being out to fuel trucks having a difficult time because of the road conditions getting fuel in tankers for our gas stations.
Q: What happens in the meantime before we even know if we qualify for federal aid?
Reeves: Well, it is a serious problem, particularly in the city of Jackson, but it’s not only in the city of Jackson. We have been working; today, for instance, we’ve had water systems go down in small communities throughout the state in large part because they had problems with their electric grid, and so we were able to get generators to them and so there’s been a lot of efforts in communities throughout the state. The specific challenges that we’ve seen in the city of Jackson are not unlike what we’ve seen several times in the past. It’s an older infrastructure and many of those infrastructure needs need to be replaced, and in this cold bitter weather, when the temperature has stayed below freezing for 72 hours without actually going above freezing, it really exacerbates those challenges and those problems that we already knew that existed. So, one of the things that we have tried very hard to impress upon people across Mississippi is that Mississippians are exceptionally generous so please be willing to help yourselves stay warm, but also help your neighbors. We got a lot of people that are not staying at home right now because of power or water challenges. They’re staying with a loved one or a family member and that is something that we are encouraging people... please look out for yourselves and also look out for your neighbors.
Q: Has our disaster declaration been approved?
Reeves: We’re still working on that. That’s one of the things that when you have a storm of this size and this magnitude, Mississippi is not the only state that is affected. In fact, Kansas and Oklahoma and Louisiana and Texas and Tennessee and Kentucky. State after state after state are dealing with varying degrees of this particular storm and so we’ll continue to work to make sure that our residents get as many federal resources as we possibly can.
Q: So are we in line behind these other states that have worse case scenarios?
Reeves: No, what I would say is… this storm is so different, this natural disaster is different than what we as a state are accustomed to. We’re used to dealing with hurricanes and we’re used to dealing with tornadoes and flooding to a certain extent. But with this particular storm, we’re not in recovery mode, we’re still in response mode because while the roads are better this afternoon on Thursday, we know that it’s gonna get extremely cold again tonight. It’s gonna be down in the low 20s, maybe high teens, throughout much of the state. We still have some precipitation in the northern third of the state, but here in Central Mississippi, most of the precipitation is gone so the number one concern that I have looking at the situation right now is that even though the roads are better now, with this very extreme, frigid cold weather tonight, it’s very likely that many of our streets are gonna freeze up again and we’re gonna have a very challenging commute early in the morning and so I want to encourage all Mississippians to be smart and to be safe tomorrow morning. Now, when we get into tomorrow afternoon, and particularly by mid-day on Saturday, the temperatures are gonna rise to a level where most of that will be resolved and we will again at that time continue to make assessments on the damage and what we can do to help people recover.
Q: A first, MDOT told us none of I-20 was pretreated, then they said they did pretreat bridges and overpasses and a portion of the stack. Can you talk about MDOT’s response to the storm, why weren’t more areas pretreated, and the lack of equipment?
Reeves: I would say all of those are very, very, very good questions and we’re going to look into that. Right now, we are still in response mode and so I think if we get into next week, those are all questions that need to be answered in such a way where everyone fully understands and fully appreciates what decisions were made and by whom and there’s no doubt there are a lot of good employees, a lot of road crews that are out doing everything they can right now and we’ll have to answer a lot of those questions in the coming days and weeks.
Q: Can you tell us about your conversation with President Biden Tuesday?
Reeves: Sure, well there was just a group of about eight or nine governors that the administration had asked to get on a call. We spoke with the president’s team, we spoke with the president and he simply was made aware of some of the challenges that existed in other states. We had no unmet needs at that time. I made him aware of that, but we certainly appreciate the opportunity to speak directly regarding the challenges that we face.
Q: Did you have any questions for him?
Reeves: I did not.
Q: We’ve had three major storms in the last 11 years. Each time the same thing has happened... iced roads, water mains broken; I realize it’s not that often, but Mississippi is crippled by each storm. What are you working on to help the state respond differently to the next storm?
Reeves: What I would say is that right now a storm of this magnitude, there are literally 30 states around the nation that are really struggling with responding. There are some things that are outside of our control. Weather is one of those. We have a large amount of equipment to deal with the roads. We’ve got to continue to do as much as we can and work as hard as we can to make sure that those roads are protected and we’ve certainly seen people working around the clock. Road crews, not just state road crews, but city road crews, county road crews, we’ve had utility crews out around the clock and it’s just a real challenge dealing with temperatures of these low levels dipping down into single digits and not going above freezing for over 72 hours. It’s caused us real challenges and we’ve got to be willing and able to respond to it.
Q: It’s scary to know that some people are without water and food and lights. What do you say to that?
Reeves: We don’t have water here either which is a terrible, unfortunate situation and we’ve got to work to improve the infrastructure in the city of Jackson, particularly in the downtown area, that’s where the major challenges exist. This is not a new phenomenon, this has been something ongoing for many, many years and we’ve got to continue to do it for those individuals that are without power and those individuals that need help with that. We had about 190,000 residents without power when we woke up at 6 a.m. and that number is now down to 60,000, almost a third have had power restored and I know that the utility crews are working around the clock to continue to knock those out and we got to continue to work to get that done.