Senior Deputy Director of Health Protection
Mississippi State Department of Health
Where were you on 9/11? Were you part of the emergency response?
I was at the Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center on a Level III trauma inspection. I was recalled to the Mississippi Capitol to prepare for potential impacts on the state. I was not part of the initial response in New York or Pennsylvania.
What was your introduction to public health preparedness? How did you get involved with PHEP?
I’ve responded to public health emergencies and disasters in Mississippi since 1983. I started in the Bureau of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) in public health. Before PHEP, the Bureau of EMS was responsible for public health and Emergency Support Function #8 response in Mississippi.
When PHEP came into play, the Mississippi State Department of Public Health created a new office called the Office of Emergency Planning and Response (OEPR). At the time, I was state director of the Bureau of EMS. The state health officer asked me to lead OEPR.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the worst natural disaster in Mississippi. After it, I worked to organize the Region IV Unified Planning Coalition (eight states in Region IV). Members of this coalition help each other in times of disasters. It is still active today.
What do you do on a day-to-day basis related to PHEP activities?
For the last few years, my role has changed to the senior deputy for the agency. I’ve responded and managed responses to public health emergencies and disasters for 45 years. I work with Christy Berry, who now leads our PHEP efforts as Director of the OEPR. As the senior deputy, I help ensure she has the resources needed. I still serve as incident manager for most disaster responses and deputy incident manager for events where a physician, normally the state health officer, serves as the incident manager.
Over your career, what changes have you seen in PHEP? How has public health preparedness evolved?
I think one of the biggest changes has been the transformation of PHEP. It has gone from a grant-funded cone of excellence program or silo, which is less known, to a core and essential service in public health. It is often called to bring order to chaos while preparing for the next episode of a public health emergency or disaster.
In addition, the federal program has grown and matured under Chris Kosmos’s leadership. She and her team understand and listen to PHEP directors to improve PHEP and keep the program current and relevant.
How has PHEP supported preparedness in your jurisdiction? What’s the most significant impact PHEP has made in terms of your jurisdiction’s ability to respond to a public health threat?
PHEP is an essential part of the state’s comprehensive plan for planning for, responding to, recovering from, and mitigating public health emergencies and disasters. There are very few disasters or emergencies that don’t impact the public’s health and safety. The capabilities and capacities developed through PHEP are key to decreasing morbidity and mortality in responses.
Reflecting on your career in public health emergency preparedness, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
- Our response to Hurricane Katrina and the team we built based on that experience.
- The development of the Region IV Unified Planning Coalition.
- We don’t forget ALL the support we received from every state in the union during our response to Hurricane Katrina and the years of recovery work. We are so proud of our response teams that deployed to many states and territories to assist in their disaster response, while at the same time paying back part of the debt we owe for their assistance in our time of need.
- The awesome team of over 1,600 public health responders that served during our marathon response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other than COVID-19, what public health emergency response experience stands out in your memory and why?
Without a doubt, our response to Hurricane Katrina. Such devastation. Entire cities were destroyed. There were 238 acute deaths followed by more than 1,000 deaths later attributed to the storm in Mississippi. Nearly 100% of the state was without power. There were no basic services in coastal counties for months, for much longer in some areas. There were extended search and rescue operations to find loved ones and children’s parents.
Hurricane Katrina was another event of “not enough stuff or people” and so much need. It was nearly an entire agency response, with more than 1,400 public health team members. Assistance came from public health heroes and others from around the country. Working with HHS Public Health Service officers from around the country, including regional emergency coordinators and the ambassadors of HHS (Heroes), was a pleasure. I remember and appreciate the professionalism and dignity that the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) provided for those who died during this event and the victims’ families. Recovery and mitigation activities lasted for years after the storm.
We’ve responded so many times. They include hurricanes, tropical storms, severe weather, Mississippi River floods, droughts, methyl parathion poisoning, shortages of flu vaccine, and the New Horizon Oil Spill multi-state environmental response. It’s hard to remember a time in the last 20 years when we were not in some type of response. Even during the pandemic, we also responded to four hurricanes or tropical systems impacting our state.
How do you maintain momentum and prevent personal burnout in the preparedness field? How do you do the same for your team?
This will sound self-serving, but the response team’s needs help me maintain momentum. My incident management style is to fully use the incident command system (ICS) when activated. This brings so many benefits to the team:
- Clear and frequent communication, including incident action plans (IAPs) and situation reports.
- Clear operational expectations and steps through ICS 204s and IAPs.
- Clear process and visibility of resources through ICS 213s and logistics functions.
- Teamwork in accomplishing specific objectives and reporting successes each operational period.
- Recognition for our public health response team and other responders often; in-person, when possible, especially in the field.
While most incident command guidelines advise against incident commands being in the field, I find it very helpful for overwhelmed responders to get communications and thanks directly. It’s hard to explain, but visiting with the team, seeing their needs, helping for a few minutes so they can take a break, hearing their frustrations directly, and thanking them for their service helps me keep my momentum. I think it helps them as well. I think