DOT deputy impressed by Mississippi

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 17, 2005

It is the disarray that shocks the most, said Brigham McCown, a deputy administrator for the U.S. Department of Transportation who has been helping with Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts for more than a week.

&8220;Just seeing the general perception of things out of place &045; large ships and boats out of place, bunches of cars out of place,&8221; he said.

McCown &045; who oversees the DOT’s pipeline and hazardous materials safety administration &045; saw a 30-foot boat lifted up by the storm, its bow pointed straight up in the air. He saw railroad tracks, still in their parallel order yet pushed to the side off their beds, and freight cars strewn about.

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But amid all that disorder, what has impressed McCown most is the spirit of the people of our state.

&8220;Mississippians have just come up and thanked us,&8221; he said. &8220;We’ve delivered meals to people. They’ve said, &8216;We’ve lost everything, but we’re OK.’&8221;

On a normal day, McCown’s division is responsible for regulating the safety of pipelines in the United States. His agency ensures the security of more than 800,000 daily shipments of hazardous materials and 64 percent of the nation’s energy transported by pipelines.

Now McCown is part of a six-man transportation department team, with three working in Louisiana and three in Mississippi. He and two others on the team spent one night in Natchez during a long trek to assess damage in both states.

In Mississippi, McCown and his colleagues are advising the governor and his staff as well as working with the federal and Mississippi emergency management agencies on transportation recovery issues.

That recovery is well under way. Last week, a second runway was opened at the Gulfport/Biloxi airport, he said, and a $5.1 million contract has been awarded to get the I-10 bridge reconstructed within 30 days. The contract has some built-in incentives to get the job done in even less time.

McCown is also, of course, responsible for making sure that pipelines are back up and operating.

McCown arrived in the region not long after the storm hit, and his team took a helicopter tour of New Orleans and the coast to assess the situation.

&8220;The power of the devastation is hard to believe,&8221; McCown said. &8220;Casinos are just lifted up and moved a mile inland.&8221;

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta sent the team in to help &8220;cut the red tape,&8221; McCown said.

One of their first tasks was to help get the commercial availability of gasoline ramped up.

The team has also visited the ports and offshore loading facilities.

McCown has been impressed with Mississippi’s response to the storm. &8220;The state and local officials have been extremely professional,&8221; he said. &8220;Everyone understands what they’re doing.&8221;

McCown also has praise for the power companies in Mississippi, which have overcome the massive hit from the storm and restored electricity to much of the state.

And McCown is not surprised by the criticism of the government’s handling of the relief effort, considering the stakes involved. &8220;It’s natural, when you’re talking to people who have lost everything,&8221; he said.

McCown is no stranger to seeing such massive loss. A member of the U.S. Navy reserves, he participated in tsunami relief operations last year.

&8220;No matter how much you prepare (for disasters), they’re all different,&8221; McCown said. &8220;But you really see what people are made of.&8221;

Kerry Whipple

Bean is editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3541 or by e-mail at