HANCOCK COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - If a hurricane strikes the coast, among those we will depend on to distribute food and water and patrol the streets is the Mississippi Army National Guard.
On Saturday, the guard unveiled a brand new facility it says will become central command should a hurricane threaten Hancock County. It replaces the one Katrina destroyed.
Mississippi Army National Guardsmen living in Hancock County say the past few years not having an armory nearby hasn't been easy for them or the people in the community.
Staff Sgt. Ray Billeaud said, "The old armory was always used with the schools, with the community using it for weddings, parties, different things like that. Since Hurricane Katrina, they haven't had the facilities for that kind of stuff."
The new armory is state-of-the-art with classrooms and large meeting areas that the community will be able to rent out. Military officials say if a natural disaster threatens, the building will become the county's EOC.
"We'll also use this armory during hurricane season," said Major General William Freeman. "Should we need to come back down this year like we did last year for Gustav, we'll have a whole battalion staged here for category one or two hurricane. We'll be able to respond to the Gulf Coast and Hancock County a lot faster than we have in the past."
Military officials say the armory could provide a boost to the local economy as guardsmen coming in for training, rent hotel rooms and patronize local restaurants.
Major General Freeman said, "It's so important to have an armory in the community. You'll have about 90 soldiers based here that will work in and out of this armory. They'll come here for training on the weekends, maybe two weekends a month."
Local guardsmen say it's nice not to have to go so far away to fulfill their duties.
Staff Sgt. Ray Billeaud said, "It's an honor for me to be here in this unit. It's a great unit of people, and the community is a great community. I love being home. It allows me to be home again."
Military officials say the new armory has a holding tank for fuel and a large generator to make the building self-supporting in a natural disaster.
The guard paid tribute to a soldier who paid the ultimate price for his country. The Mississippi Army National Guard dedicated its brand new armory in honor of First Lieutenant Robert Oneto-Sikorski of Bay St. Louis.
The 33-year-old was killed in Iraq in October of 2005 while serving in the 155th Combat Brigade Team. Military officials say Oneto-Sikorski died after an i.e.d. detonated. His nickname was "Ski."
"Ski kept everybody focused on the mission. What he gave to us in a word was calm. Looking for eloquence here a fighter, a friend, a mentor, a voice of reason. A patriot," Major Drew Robertson said. "It's not a day of sorrow; this is a day of joy and an armory that looks this impressive. A citadel is what it looks like to withstand nature's wrath and man's evil to name something like this is an ultimate testament to his character. "
Oneto-Sikorski's family was present at the ceremony.