Few recent situations have demonstrated the importance of an emergency management agency like a regional search for 23-year-old Victoria Hudson, who went missing earlier this month in the woods of Clay County.
Oktibbeha County Emergency Management Director Kristen Campanella, speaking to the Starkville Rotary Club on Monday, used the search for Hudson as an example demonstrating how an emergency management agency responds in a crisis situation. She recounted the whole event, from when Hudson first made contact with Oktibbeha County first responders at about 3:40 a.m. July 5 to when her phone lost power at 7:33 a.m.
Rescuers found Hudson on July 7.
Stewart Bird, a Starkville Fire Department battalion chief and member of the Mississippi Task Force, said rescuers were combing a 3,000-acre wooded area. As the search wore on, he said, they grew more concerned because of the natural hazards present in the area.
“We were a little concerned that she had passed,” Bird said. “This 3,000 acres — the guy (who owns the land) said he catches roughly 450 hogs a year. We were under the assumption that the hogs could have gotten a hold of this young lady, or rattlesnakes — just anything.”
Hudson stayed in a deer stand in the forest. Bird said she stayed there the entire first day and night, which is why she couldn’t hear rescuers searching for her.
Campanella said it took some time for emergency management to figure out exactly where Hudson was when she first called 911. Hudson, an Oktibbeha County resident, remained adamant that she was in northern Oktibbeha County. Her cell phone was pinging off a cell tower in Clay County. However, Campanella said, that only narrowed her possible area down to one with a 3.2-mile radius around the tower.
Things could have moved faster, she said, if C Spire, Hudson’s cell phone provider, had provided latitude and longitudinal coordinates when initially requested.
“Initially, the cell phone company refused to give that to us,” Campanella said. “We’ve never had that problem before. Of course it happens when you need it. But I think we have that issue resolved now because we ended up having to get the FBI to request that from the cell phone company.”
Emergency management received those coordinates at 10:45 a.m. — more than three hours after losing contact with Hudson and nearly five hours after the first request.
“It was very frustrating, because if we could have gotten those coordinates when we first started calling the cell phone provider at 5:30 (a.m.), we may have found her a lot quicker.”
A Tennessee Valley Authority helicopter flying along the power line near where Hudson went missing spotted her SUV at 11:18 a.m. Hudson’s vehicle was crashed in a creek under TVA power lines, nearly a mile from Mhoon Valley Road off of Highway 50 in southwest Clay County.
With the vehicle located and Hudson’s last known cell phone coordinates in hand, the Mississippi Task Force deployed to search for her.
Bird said by the time responders found her car — which took time because TVA couldn’t give them GPS coordinates — Hudson had moved on.
That led to nearly three days of searching before responders found her. He said the search was very thorough, with rescuers even using sticks to search in creeks to make sure she wasn’t in the water.
“When we search a piece of woods with the task force and we come out and tell the family, ‘Your family member is not here,’ I can tell you 99 percent that your family member is not there,” Bird said. “The only reason they wouldn’t be there is if there was a pond or something like that that we would have to come back to this location and dive it just to make sure they hadn’t drowned.”
Missing person searches are one of dozens of types of calls emergency management responds to. Already this year, Campanella said, Oktibbeha County EMA has received more than 17,000 911 calls.
She also encouraged proactive steps to prepare for disasters, whether that’s making disaster preparedness kits to keep at home, at work or in a car, or signing up for services like Code RED. Code RED is a free alert system for Oktibbeha County residents that sends text message alerts for events like severe weather warnings, based on address.
It’s important to remember, she said, that disaster can strike anywhere, and preparedness can go a long way toward making it through an event.
“You’re always used to seeing these events that everything happens somewhere else,” she said. “We’ve been very fortunate the last few years that we haven’t had an event like some of our neighboring counties have had. But it can happen.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.