Local leaders recently toured hurricane impacted areas of Mississippi to glean steps to recovery.

CHIPLEY - A recent trip to formerly hurricane-ravaged cities in rural Mississippi is expected to shine light on a better future in Washington and surrounding counties.

 

Sponsored by Gulf Power Company and Enterprise Florida and hosted by Opportunity Florida, business professionals, elected officials and other leaders of various capacities, and residents from across the region met with leaders of Mississippi communities Hattiesburg, Pascagoula and Lucedale to observe how their respective cities were able to recuperate from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"We’ve learned that a lot of people involved in recovery efforts don’t necessarily have experience working in a rural area like ours and we felt we needed to find a rural area that could share their knowledge to help us learn how to better utilize different programs to help us find our way to a complete and successful recovery," Richard Williams, Executive Director at CareerSource Chipola and Opportunity Florida.

Every county in Mississippi was impacted by the storm. Even 14 years later the communities are using federal funding to recover and sustain. Local officials who went on the trip described the new housing, museums, and business-community partnerships that emerged in response to the storm's impact as sophisticated and inspiring - and a blueprint for what could replicated locally.

"We will have a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring things back, not to where they were, to be better than the way they were," said Ted Everett, Executive Director of Washington County Chamber of Commerce, at a Chamber luncheon. "We do not just want to recover to the way we were ... we have lost jobs, some transportation, housing - one of the biggest impediments to bringing back a recovery."

If any county is ready for the leap ahead, it is Washington County, Everett said.

At the Chamber luncheon held Thursday at Northwest Florida Community Hospital, Williams presented a slideshow summarizing the purpose of the trip and offering recommendations from the standpoint of Opportunity Florida and CareerSource Chipola, which covers Washington, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Calhoun counties.

The two major benchmarks Williams mentioned were "move now" and "document."

"This is not a time to just let everybody else take care of it, this is a time to find out what you need to do to help," Williams said, noting earlier had a similarly caliber storm struck a major Florida city, federal funding would have been close to immediately available.

No federal relief has come to the impacted areas since the massive storm struck the area more than 200 days ago. It is believed to be the longest wait for funding from the feds following a catastrophic event in the mainland U.S.

"The private sector side has to step up - and it's not just one side giving everything - it's not all grants, it's not all loans, it's a combination of everybody working together," Williams said. 

Further, he said local leaders need to began aggressively pursuing attention from legislators at the start of committee meetings in September.

County Administrator Jeff Massey, who also attended the trip, assured Chamber members that Washington County is prepared to pursue the funding and put in the persistence required to rebuild a better community.

"We got to get to work," noting he has reached his level of frustration with the "run around" from state and federal governmental agencies, is now in the process of "rallying the troops," and planning to aggressively pursue community block grants.

"They were very clear what they told us - government is not going to do anything for you, state's not going to do anything for you, you've got to go to work and you've got to push this to make it happen," he emphatically said.

"We're going to pursue it like nobody's business," he later said. "The opportunities is what we're trying to capture."

According to officials, a consortium is being organized and meetings will be held in order to better plan, organize and act. The consortium will welcome input from the public, with, according to Everett, consideration of all ideas as long as they can be tied back into recovery from the impact of the storm. West Florida Regional Planning Council will assist the county with executing the planning.

He said the losses present new opportunities.

"We're going to try to change this county for the better," Everett said to Chamber members at the luncheon, having previously mentioned he had already made five project recommendations to the county, with some relating to transportation and sheltering.

"We want more businesses, more jobs, more growth," he said. "That's our vision."

The Washington County Chamber of Commerce, 672 N. Fifth Street,  is serving as the coalescing agency to spearhead the consortium.

"We've got to engage our members in a very strategic way to support these initiatives and provide some input with some of these projects," said Chamber President Nicole Barefield. "Not just for today, not just for this month, but for the long term."

To make suggestions or ask questions, contact the Chamber at 850-638-4157 or email info@washcomall.com.