Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hancock County, MS: From Katrina to Success

By Ranada Robinson, Research Manager

On this day ten years ago, a book entitled August 29: Katrina was released. It was a look into the havoc wreaked on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. 

What you may not know is that Hancock County, MS, home of Stennis Space Center, was ground zero for Katrina, which was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. Katrina’s storm surge all but wiped out the Clermont Harbor, Waveland, and Bay St. Louis communities in Hancock County.

August 29: Katrina was written by Bob Pittman and Ashley Edwards, two gentlemen who have contributed greatly to economic development in Mississippi. Bob Pittman is a media mogul who also served as the CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council from 1968 to 1998. Ashley Edwards is currently the CEO of the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Ashley served as Deputy Director then later, Executive Director of the Mississippi Office of Recovery.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Ashley to hear his perspective of Hancock County’s post-Katrina economic development efforts. His perspective is particularly intriguing because as well as being a key leader in rebuilding the Mississippi communities that were damaged, Ashley and his family were victims of the storm.

As leaders charted their course of recovery, their first priority, of course, was meeting basic survival needs. Ashley noted that there were many tasks that had to be completed, even before housing recovery and economic development grants could be extended, including rebuilding the roads, rebuilding the schools, re-laying water and sewer lines, and reconnecting utilities. "For that first year, our focus was entirely putting back the robust infrastructure that's necessary to support habitation,” said Ashley of the initial stages of the recovery process. Another major priority during these initial months was ensuring that infrastructure was replaced in such a way that it would be stronger and more durable should another Katrina-like storm happen again. Despite the stigma that comes with pursuing economic development after such destruction, Ashley is now able to assure potential and existing businesses that the county is in a significantly less vulnerable position now and is prepared for any future incidents.

Ashley points to two key factors behind their success: the ability of community leaders and stakeholders to work together to focus on recovery and the fact that there was a focus on developing long-term strategies even as leaders addressed short-term needs. Leaders never lost sight of the importance of knowing where they were going after all the short-term needs had been met. According to Ashley, “…while we were very much still in response phase, [Mississippi] was also putting a lot of investment in making sure that we were preparing ourselves for the long-term recovery that had to happen.”

The first strategy that the county implemented was the Hancock County Long-Term Recovery Plan, which was published in early 2006 and was done in conjunction with a number of experts, the state of Mississippi, the federal government, and Hancock County officials and stakeholders. Then in 2010 and 2011, Market Street Services had the opportunity to work with the Hancock County Development Commission (now the Port and Harbor Commission), the Hancock County Chamber and other partners to develop an Economic Development Strategy. I was the lead researcher on that project, and it was then that I was able to see beyond the pictures and news articles and see firsthand how this community was working together through its challenges.

When I asked Ashley about how this strategy helped with their efforts, he said, “I think the greatest value that something like that can have is that it puts people in a position in which they're thinking about the future in the terms of process and actionable items.” Getting the right people at the table to talk about where the county needed to go and how it would get there made all the difference in the world. “That component of 'how are we going to get there?' is something that created an ecosystem in Hancock County that was very important for the situation we were in post-Katrina.” Partnerships and teamwork continue to be paramount to economic development, and that was surely the case in Hancock County.

Now, after a decade since Hurricane Katrina destroyed the physical features of Hancock County, it is clearly evident that the storm did not destroy the tenacity and determination of its residents and business community. As residents were focusing on reestablishing their lives, businesses were also working to rebuild and were committed to staying in Hancock County. In fact, according to Ashley, “In Hancock County Port Bienville Industrial Park, all of the industries that made it through the storm were back up and operating within 30 days post-Katrina. In some cases, they were back up and operating without even the basic infrastructure that fed their raw materials. We still had rail bridges that were completely out. We still had situations where you didn't have road access coming into some of those areas. So, it is astounding to see how quickly that started to come back after the fact, but, make no mistake about it, in some ways it is a true American success story because there was every reason for Hancock County not to make it through Katrina and yet it did and has actually come back on the back side much stronger than it was even in 2005.”

Hancock County is thriving, and it continues to attract businesses, investments, and jobs. Hancock County, MS is still the home of Stennis Space Center, where NASA tests rockets. The county’s largest employers are Jindal Tubular, Lockheed Martin Space, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Naval Research Lab, and DAK Americas, which recently announced its expansion in Port Bienville Industrial Park. Hancock County was chosen over Charleston, SC for DAK Americas’ new plant that will make 230 million pounds of polyester staple fibers.

The Port and Harbor Commission also landed Petroleum Helicopters Inc. and EmberClear Corp. Workforce development remains a priority, and the county works with the Mississippi Polymer Institute, the outreach arm of the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials at the University of Southern Mississippi. Its many partnerships and economic development wins are evidence that Hancock County is here to stay.

Although the county’s story could fill an encyclopedia, it is my hope that highlighting Hancock County’s amazing story will serve as strong advice to communities that have experienced natural disasters and other large-scale obstacles. The Hancock County recovery story is one that inspires and reminds us of the enormous capacity of humans to overcome even the most incredible odds. In the coming weeks, we will provide another glimpse into Hancock County’s current profile and share more of my interview of Ashley Edwards.

For more information about the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission, please visit Please stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of the Hancock County Economic Development Post-Katrina series.