Fires, oil spills, and Katrina: Mississippi man gives lifetime of service

Published 10:13 pm Monday, May 29, 2023

Brad Ratcliff said his 29-year career with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has been rewarding. The Brookhaven native plans to retire in about a year to spend more time with his grandchildren.

Ratcliff said he has responded to several natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the record-breaking Mississippi River Flooding in 2011. BP’s oil spill in 2010 was another big disaster he responded to.

“I’ve gotten to work every great event that affected Mississippians in my lifetime. It was the worst hurricane, biggest environmental spills and flood on record,” Ratcliff said. “It has been fun. I have seen a lot and helped a lot of people.”

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He has served for 26 years on the emergency response team after spending three years with the Solid Waste Division and seven years with the Agriculture and Construction branch.

In essence, Ratcliff’s work is summed up by the MDEQ mission statement “The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for protecting the state’s air, land, and water. Our mission is to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of present and future generations of Mississippians by conserving and improving our environment and fostering wise economic growth through focused research and responsible regulation.” However, his career has been much more than fulfilling a mission statement.

He made several lifelong friends by working with MDEQ. Ratcliff said he first met his friends and current Lincoln County Emergency Management Agency director Chris Reid and Lawrence County Emergency Management Agency Director Tony Norwood during Hurricane Katrina.

Ratcliff was working in Solid Waste at the time but had gone down to Camp Shelby to help in the response once the storm made landfall. He said after they cut a road to Gulfport along with the Mississippi Department of Transportation and the Mississippi National Guard, they found a city devastated.

Out of habit, he would take his phone out of his pocket, flip it open to check for messages or phone calls but there was no service. It was 10 hours after landfall and people were wandering around the streets of Gulfport. Ratcliff said he saw a woman about 70 years old, her clothes were tattered, torn, and hanging off her body, holding the hand of a small child.

“She walked up and asked if I had any water. We weren’t prepared for this but we had some cases of water and I gave her some Nabs. I asked her if the child was hers and she said she found the child wandering the street,” Ratcliff said. “Then she saw me with my phone and asked if I could call her sister in Ohio for her. I told her we did not have any service, but she kept asking and begging me to try. I pressed the dial, and it started ringing. A lady on the other end answered it and I told her who I was. I told her her sister wanted her to know she was alive. It brought tears to my eyes. She started crying on the phone. I let the woman talk with her sister. I don’t know why it works. After the phone call, it stopped working for two weeks. Hopefully it comforted her. It was just something that stuck in my mind.”

For a year and a half, Ratcliff and others from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality worked in the recovery of the Gulf Coast following Katrina. Crews looked for hazardous materials then eventually transitioned to debris cleanup.

Ratcliff said he usually gets asked how he managed to sleep during the time. They would sleep in trucks, with no showers or clean clothes, getting by with what food they could find. He said he saw a dirty mattress and decided to cover it up and put it in the back of his truck. At night, he would climb back there and sleep on it. On the days he would have to come home, the mattress would be too soft the first few days so he would sleep on the floor.

Private sector to public servant

Ratcliff went to Co-Lin Community College and then on to Mississippi State University where he got a degree in Construction Engineering Technology. He entered the workforce in general construction and worked all over the south from Mississippi to Alabama, Georgia, and Kentucky for 12 years.

One night, his home in Brookhaven caught on fire as he was working in north Georgia. His wife called him, and he asked for a few days off from work, but the company did not give him the time off. Ratcliff said he left to come home. He got a job in Jackson and every day during lunch his college buddies who worked for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality would stop by and tell him about a job opening. He applied and started working in solid waste. His job experience constructing landfills in the private sector helped him with code enforcement for the MDEQ.

Ratcliff said he has served in compliance and enforcement his entire time with the department. Work can be stressful but also very rewarding with emergency response. He might have to handle up to 17 calls in a day, some of them are coordinated over the phone and others he must drive to handle. Ratcliff serves 76 of the 82 counties in Mississippi along with two other emergency response team members. They work on a call rotation.

Family matters

A proud father, Ratcliff said his son is at Fort Bragg going through training to be in the special forces as a medic. Ratcliff’s dad served in the Air Force and his uncles served in World War II. His brother and brother-in-law served in the coast guard.

While he has not served in the military, Ratcliff has served in law enforcement for the last 15 years. In his off time, Ratcliff is a reserve sheriff deputy for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department. He has served as security for local churches including Easthaven Baptist Church and Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

The home he lives in now was once his parents’ home and is about a mile from where he grew up on Smylie Street behind Tillotson’s. Looking out to a pond, he chuckled as he recalled fishing there with his buddies before being chased off by a lady, they would cross US51 and fish a pond over there before being chased off there.

“I moved back and I loved it. It is home. Always has been and always will be,” Ratcliff said. “It is one of those things. I love seeing the people out there and how nice they are with the MDEQ. Everyone around here is like that. Brookhaven is home.”