After storm preparations, Miss. avoids tropical jolt

Published 10:09 am Saturday, September 22, 2007

BILOXI (AP) — After preparing for what could’ve been the area’s first tropical rattle since Hurricane Katrina two years ago, Mississippi coast residents breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The tropical depression moved ashore Friday night near Fort Walton Beach, Fla., without strengthening into a tropical storm.

National Weather Service meteorologist Bob Wagner said coastal Mississippi could expect winds of up to 25 mph — about the equivalent of a strong thunderstorm.

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‘‘Everybody’s dodging (the proverbial bullet) right now,’’ said Bob Wagner, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Slidell, La.

Throughout Friday, Mississippi emergency officials had prepared for a possible tropical storm. Thousands of people are still living in government-issued trailers that they got after Katrina left a wide swath of destruction on Aug. 29, 2005.

Shelters were opened Friday, and the easternmost of the state’s three coastal counties ordered mandatory evacuations for people living in mobile homes or travel trailers or for those living in low-lying areas. Evacuations were recommended, but not mandatory, for those groups of people in the other coastal counties in the state.

While some people in south Mississippi were ready to evacuate, others were skeptical.

Larry Hesler, a retired commercial fisherman with a leathery tan, lives in a Federal Emergency Management Agency travel trailer on a weedy lot where his sister’s home used to stand on east Biloxi’s Point Cadet. The 63-year-old took a long drag from a Marlboro on Friday and said he won’t worry about this storm unless the winds top 60 mph.

‘‘Once you’ve been through Kat-rina,’’ he said, separating the syllables, ‘‘it’s got to be pretty bad to scare you off.’’

Just down Howard Avenue, Sandy Pallon, 59, wasn’t taking any chances. She lives in a FEMA trailer park on a treeless gravel lot where an elementary school stood before Katrina. She loaded up her sport utility vehicle Friday and prepared to go to her mother’s house in Hattiesburg, about 85 miles north.

‘‘I went through the other,’’ she said, meaning Katrina, ‘‘and I definitely don’t want to go through that again.’’

Pallon said: ‘‘I have high blood pressure and I don’t need the stress.’’

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency as the storm moved through the gulf. He said it was a precautionary step to make public money available more quickly for areas that might have damage.

‘‘One of the important lessons we learned after Katrina was that there is no substitute for awareness and advance preparation,’’ Barbour said.

A coastal flood watch was posted for south Mississippi. Rupert Lacy, interim director of the Harrison County Emergency Management Agency, urged people living in flimsy housing to find sturdier places to stay during the storm.

Lacy said that with the possibility of tropical winds, ‘‘the concern is that we still have some debris and trees from Katrina that haven’t been completely cleared out and that creates a problem for us.’’

The National Park Service closed Mississippi’s barrier islands.

Casino parking lots remained packed in Biloxi and Gulfport, and the state Gaming Commission told casino executives to monitor the storm. Katrina destroyed or heavily damaged the 12 coastal casinos.

Weeks after Katrina, legislators changed the law that had required all state-regulated casinos to be built over water on the Mississippi River or on the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, coastal casinos have been allowed to develop a short distance on shore. Most have reopened, including the Hard Rock casino that had its grand opening around the time Katrina hit.