BILOXI, Miss. -- Stone County lies some 35 miles north of the Mississippi Coast, far enough away to escape the storm surge of a strong hurricane. But it wasn't far enough away from the knock-down punch of Hurricane Katrina. Brought to its knees by the storm, the county is nearly back on its feet today.
More than half of the county's estimated 5,500 houses and all four of its public schools sustained damages from the 2005 storm. The county courthouse, fire department and main library - all in the county seat of Wiggins - as well as the county's timber industry, took a hit.
"The storm's winds reached 130 mph by noon and they remained that way until late afternoon," said Raven James, director of the Stone County Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security coordinator. He and some county and city staff rode out the storm in their emergency operations center. When they emerged cautiously from the shelter late that day, there were "trees everywhere."
The amount of debris in Stone, a densely forested county, was staggering; most of it vegetative matter. The Federal Emergency Management Agency jumped in with about $682,000 for emergency protective measures, such as clearing streets, and $31.1 million to help with debris removal. Debris removal operations lasted nearly two years.
But Raven James, who, in the storm's aftermath was relieved the county had recently deemed his part-time position in emergency operations should be a full-time vocation, didn't wait too long to get to other recovery issues.
Luckily, he and his county colleagues started off on the right recovery foot. A Stone County hazard mitigation plan was developed and completed just months after Hurricane Katrina.
"Going through that plan helped," James said about recovery guidance.
The plan included a list of critical projects that should be addressed after a disaster: sewers, roads and bridges, public buildings, utilities and recreational areas. With a plan in hand and $2.6 million from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and FEMA, Stone County was able to move forward to repair the courthouse, the library, a park and public utilities.
"We're now about 99 percent complete with these projects," James said.
The county's four schools sustained about $5 million in damages. Most was covered by insurance, but the federal and state governments kicked in about $50,000. In addition to expediting repairs, the Stone County School District also applied for and received nearly $5 million from the FEMA/MEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to build four school shelters and one community shelter.
"Stone County's recovery includes that essential forward-thinking element - preparing for future disasters," said MEMA Director Mike Womack. "They've set an example for other counties."
Like most recovery stories in Mississippi, Stone County's is punctuated by challenges and opportunities.
Population has grown 15 percent since Hurricane Katrina. Construction to accommodate new residents, though slowed with the economic downturn, has not stopped. New home inventory includes affordable housing; more than 80 units were recently completed.
Jobs and economic growth have been a concern. Before the storm, nearly 40 percent of Stone's residents worked along the coast. Many jobs were lost to Katrina, especially at casinos. The timber industry is in decline; prices are depressed. Casinos came back, of course, but today's economic reality casts a shadow on job growth.
The Stone County Economic Development Board hopes to address job concerns through its mission to help existing businesses and to attract new industry to the area.
"We see opportunities in recovery," said James, who serves as a member of that board. "We'd like to partner with Harrison County - or others nearby - to work on bringing some type of high tech company to the area."
The board ha...