About 100 community members gather for the Disaster Town Hall Meeting at the Municipal Complex in Columbus Monday evening. Representatives from emergency services, United Way, Red Cross, Community Outreach, Columbus Light and Water, councilmen and others were there to offer information and answer questions. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
March 12, 2019 10:21:49 AM
The theme of Monday night's town hall meeting at the Columbus Municipal Complex could be summarized with one word: patience.
"That's what we need y'all to have," Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, who led the meeting, told about 100 attendees whose homes or businesses are still in shambles after an EF-3 tornado ripped through northeast Columbus on Feb. 23. "There is a process and we're working through it. But we're asking you to have a little patience."
Nearly three weeks after the storm, some residents still in the process of cleaning up their homes and repairing damaged roofs, windows, porches and cars. But navigating that process is tricky, especially as volunteer agencies like the Salvation Army and Red Cross continue to scale back the scope of their aid and are no longer providing for immediate needs such as meals and clothing. This leaves residents unsure of who to go to with their questions.
"I came here because I didn't know who to ask," one woman told Columbus Light and Water General Manager Todd Gale during an open question and answer session at Monday's meeting.
She said some power lines fell down in her yard during the tornado, and even before that, part of a tree was growing over and into the remaining lines still hanging near her home. She wanted to know whose responsibility it was to clean those up.
"If we skipped over you, we'll come by and take care of that as soon as possible," Gale said, giving her a number to call to schedule the removal.
Most of the questions fielded by public officials Monday were about debris removal. Several residents wanted to know what debris the city was responsible for removing (tree branches will be picked up; household debris will not, according to Smith). Others wanted to know who was responsible for hauling away debris from construction and repair work done by contractors and where they needed to place tree branches for city pickup.
Columbus city project manager Jabari Edwards, who is coordinating the city's disaster recovery efforts, told residents that the city won't "split hairs" about the location of tree branches, as long as they're near the curb.
"We don't want you to block (sidewalk) right-of-way," he said. "But the boom we're using to pick up debris, that can reach, so as long as it's curbside, we'll come and get it."
Prior to the question-and-answer session, officials from North Mississippi Red Cross, United Way of Lowndes County, Columbus Lowndes Emergency Management Agency and Mississippi Emergency Management Agency addressed the public with the most recent storm recovery information they had.
Gale also handed out information to residents on financial incentives available from Tennessee Valley Authority for those repairing or rebuilding homes. The amount of money available to each resident is dependent upon factors such as how much damage was done to their homes, but Gale said he would try to raise some of those incentives.
"We're asking TVA to double those incentives for those affected," he said. "We haven't heard anything on that yet, but that's something we feel strongly about."
Gale added that customers who do not have power to their destroyed or heavily-damaged homes have an account that is essentially frozen. They will not lose their deposits and will not have to pay any minimum monthly fees.
"We're treating you as a customer with a suspended account, basically," he said. "We're waiting to hear from you depending on what you decide to do."
United Way director Renee Sanders and Community Outreach Center director Glenda Buckhalter both spoke to the ongoing needs for volunteers and donations. NMRC Director John Brown said his office is still giving volunteer training to church groups and other organizations wanting to aid clean-up efforts.
"We're trying to build resiliency in the wake of this disaster," he said. "We recognize that people want to assist, and we want to make sure that can happen."
"We're trying to get people as much help as we can," she said. "We're still taking donations at our office. We're getting people into hotels as funding allows while we work on long-term housing solutions. We're doing the most we can."
Carlos Martinez, a member of the MEMA Individual Assistance Team assigned to Lowndes County, told residents that MEMA has completed its assessment of the flooding and tornado damage and has given that information to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA officials are expected to begin an assessment of public and private property damage on Wednesday. Once that assessment is completed, MEMA and FEMA will send the findings to Governor Phil Bryant's office, which will put in a request for federal emergency assistance for the city and for individuals.
"When, if, that does happen, we will let people know," said EMS Director Cindy Lawrence. "But there is no FEMA right now. We cannot provide financial assistance at this time.
"When that time comes, we will use the media and social media to let everyone know what the next steps are and what you need to do," she added. "But until then, we need everyone to have patience."
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