We can weather this storm
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Mississippians are all too familiar with weathering each storm that comes our way. They come like clockwork each year. But Mississippians usually aren’t asked to weather more than one storm at a time.

Throughout this pandemic, I have reflected often on when our state was last tested to a similar magnitude. One of the deadliest and most catastrophic hurricanes to ever hit our country, Hurricane Katrina, devastated our families, our communities and our economy in Mississippi.

I was in my second year in office as state treasurer when our state was rocked by this natural disaster. The devastation was unimaginable. Working with then-Gov. Haley Barbour (R), we committed to finding a path forward for our state through a short-term response and long-term recovery. Without our first responders’ tireless dedication during those dark times, our efforts to save lives and begin our recovery would not have been nearly as successful.

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Now in my first year in office as governor, Mississippi is being put to the test yet again.

Since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, our state has 14 open federal disaster declarations to help our people respond and recover whenever disaster has struck. Seven of those disaster declarations were granted in just the past three months.

We’ve only just reached our first 100 days in office. Time and time again in those first 100 days, our first responders have been put to the test. And each time they have found the strength within to rise to the latest challenge and take care of their fellow Mississippians.

Early on this year, our first responders were tested when our state was hit by historic flood levels that we hadn’t experienced since 1983. The torrential rains began on Feb. 10, and it was only days later that I was declaring a state of emergency to deploy all resources, including calling on our first responders. In the third-largest flood in state history, the Pearl River flooding devastated communities from Central Mississippi around our state capital all the way down to our coastal towns.

Working day and night, first responders fought diligently to bolster our response and recovery efforts to minimize the impact on our people and their livelihoods. Our first responders’ commitment and ongoing presence reassured Mississippians that they were not alone, bringing a ray of hope to our state. Thanks to their unwavering fortitude, not a single life was lost.

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Not long after that our state was put to the test again.

It was in the middle of our cleanup and recovery supported by our first responders that we were struck by another unprecedented tragedy. As the world was reeling from COVID-19, we were picking up the pieces of our lives. It was then that the worldwide pandemic reached into Mississippi and upended the lives of our people with our first presumptive case of COVID-19.

Preparing for the impact, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) activated to a Level 1 calling up our first responders for immediate action—a level that our state hasn’t been at since Hurricane Katrina. As part of the Mississippi Coronavirus (COVID-19) Preparedness and Response Planning Steering Committee, our first responders in MEMA have been instrumental in securing personal protective equipment and other live-saving medical supplies for those on the front lines.

Whether tapping into the national stockpile or reaching out to the private sector, they have stopped at nothing to equip their fellow first responders to combat this invisible enemy. Even facilitating the delivery of our critical supplies to our hospitals, long-term care facilities and county emergency management agencies throughout the state. Working hand-in-hand with our state health officials, MEMA’s first responders have been manning our 24/7 coronavirus hotline since the very beginning of our response efforts.

Our first responders have stepped up in every way possible, saving countless lives and mitigating the impact of COVID-19. But God was apparently not done testing them.

In the middle of responding to a worldwide pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen in over 100 years, disaster struck our state once again. On Easter Sunday, as families and worship communities were preparing for their coronavirus-altered celebrations, tornadoes of historic magnitude tore through our beautiful Mississippi. In what were the largest tornadoes in state history — and third-largest in our nation’s history — 15 tornadoes, some over 2 miles wide, ripped a horrific path of destruction through our communities and countryside. With winds reaching 190 mph, the EF3 and EF4 tornadoes claimed 14 Mississippians and left our state reeling. And once again, we called upon our everyday heroes, who stepped up for the third time this year.

They worked into the dark of the night and through the following days to protect their fellow Mississippians — all while continuing their vigilant response to COVID-19. 

Since early February, our state Emergency Operations Center has been activated for over 13 weeks straight. Thirteen weeks of our first responders pulled away from their loved ones at home. Thirteen weeks of unyielding commitment protecting their fellow Mississippians. Thirteen weeks of selflessness in the face of unprecedented tragedy and invisible enemies. Their dedication and grit has been truly awe-inspiring to witness. 

We would not be where we are today — our testing robust, our numbers significantly lower than national projections, preparing to reopen our state’s economy and get people back to work — without the strength and determination of our first responders. 

From our men and women in uniform to our health care workers, from our state response in MEMA to our boots on the ground across the state, they have been working around the clock to save lives. It is my greatest honor to work with our first responders who sacrifice and wage war on the front lines each and every day.

Please know that my wife, Elee, and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts for protecting our kids and every Mississippian across our great state. Words will never be able to express my sincere gratitude and admiration for these brave men and women.

Reeves is the governor of Mississippi.