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COVID-19 response: How Ergon Marine is protecting its team and customers



Story by Frank McCormack, The Waterways Journal Weekly

Across the maritime industry, every company, agency, port or terminal has been impacted by efforts to “flatten the curve” of infections of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Shoreside staff working from home, crews transported by road rather than air and stepped-up disinfecting aboard vessels are all just a small sample of measures being taken to guard against the spread of a disease that has infected more than 600,000 Americans and more than 2 million people globally.

One example of a maritime company’s individualized effort to fight the disease is that of Ergon Marine & Industrial Supply, the Vicksburg, Miss.-based midstream and harbor service supply company. EMIS, which also has a base of operations in Memphis, Tenn., offers midstream supply and transport of groceries, fuel, equipment, supplies and crew changes to commercial vessels on the lower Mississippi River. Part of the Ergon family of companies, EMIS also houses the Vicksburg Information Center during high water to manage commercial vessel movements through the Vicksburg bridges.

Because EMIS handles a large number of crew changes, company leaders knew they had to be proactive in protecting individual crew members—and by extension other companies’ operations—while also maintaining an essential service. Danny Koestler, vice president of EMIS, said the business took swift action to screen individuals coming through the company’s boat store and to prevent interaction between different populations.

“We put in a portable building to act as a customer screening facility,” Koestler said. “We check temperatures, ask questions and keep everyone separated. If somebody’s running a temperature, we can turn them around and keep our facility and crew changes isolated.

“That way,” he added, “we can protect us and protect the boats out there, and also try and keep it from impacting industry.”

The screening process applies to employees, customer crew members, anyone making deliveries, shoreside customers and visitors. Each person’s temperature is taken and logged. Then a representative from EMIS asks three main questions: Have you been out of the country? Have you been sick? Have you knowingly been exposed to anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19? All of that information is logged and stored. On site, EMIS has also provided a freestanding restroom. Once the screening is complete, each person is encouraged to await transport inside his or her own vehicle.

In addition, EMIS has closed its crew lounge and moved to daylight-only crew changes. Also, the Coast Guard, at the request of the Lower Mississippi River Committee, or LOMRC, has temporarily suspended the Vicksburg Information Center. Koestler said southbound vessels are continuing to queue themselves in accordance with Coast Guard guidelines as they would if the center were operational.

EMIS implemented the procedures in mid-March. At that time, Koestler, a member of LOMRC, sent the guidelines to both customers and LOMRC. EMIS also developed enhanced guidelines for its harbor vessels for sanitizing and keeping high-touch surfaces clean. Koestler said it’s all about being proactive during this unusual time.

“These are different times; I’ve never seen anything like it in my whole life,” he said. “I think the hardest part of this, psychologically anyway, is that we’re all confined.”

Koestler added that, regardless of how long “social distancing” measures are in place, EMIS will continue forward-leaning efforts to meet customers’ supply needs while also keeping crew members as safe as possible.

This story was originally published by The Waterways Journal Weekly and is reprinted here with permission.


Kevin Roberts opens his second Fit Chef store in Madison



Kevin Roberts and his new Fit Chef store in Madison. (photos courtesy Kevin Roberts)

Vicksburg resident Kevin Roberts is opening a new Fit Chef location in Madison, Mississippi, next week.

The new Fit Chef is Roberts’ second location. The store promotes a healthy eating lifestyle and offers healthy prepared meals and catering. The grand opening of the new Fit Chef is Wednesday, Oct. 28, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 111 Dees Drive in Madison.

The first Fit Chef is located at 3401 Halls Ferry Road in Roberts hometown of Vicksburg and is popular among local residents.

Roberts has plenty to keep him busy. He is also the owner of The Chopping Block, an axe throwing arcade located at 1504 Washington St. in downtown Vicksburg, which he opened earlier this year.

Roberts is hoping that his second Fit Chef location will have as much success as the first one as he continues to expand the Fit Chef brand.

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Vicksburg among MS communities to see boost in wireless connectivity



Vicksburg is among many communities in Mississippi that will be seeing a big boost in wireless connectivity, AT&T announced Tuesday.

AT&T said in a statement that it has added dozens of new sites already this year to enhance coverage and help give residents and first responders faster, more reliable wireless service. These investments will help customers get the most out of their mobile devices.

“As we all continue to recognize the growing importance of connectivity in our daily lives, these type investments help us stay connected to the world around us, and they also help us remain competitive and make us more attractive to outside investment and job creation,” said Gov. Tate Reeves in the statement. “While we all recognize that there is more work to be done to connect Mississippians, we applaud AT&T for doing that work.”

Without question, it is essential that our customers stay connected in today’s environment, the company said. That’s why we’re boosting network reliability and capacity as we expand our network. This helps residents in communities across Mississippi to get the best possible experience over the AT&T network wherever they live, work and play, including the following areas:

  • Ashland
  • Braxton
  • Canton
  • Carthage
  • Coila
  • Collinsville
  • DeKalb
  • Ethel
  • Gloster
  • Grace
  • Grenada
  • Hazlehurst
  • Iuka
  • Leakesville
  • Magee
  • Morton
  • Mount Olive
  • New Albany
  • Ovett
  • Parchman
  • Perkinston
  • Pontotoc
  • Poplarville
  • Port Gibson
  • Sandy Hook
  • Shaw
  • Silver Creek
  • St. Louis
  • State Line
  • Starkville
  • Swiftown
  • Union
  • Utica
  • Vicksburg

“We are committed to enhancing connectivity for businesses, residents and first responders in communities across Mississippi, and these network expansions are good examples of the work we’re accomplishing as a result of the hundreds of millions of dollars we’ve invested in Mississippi,” said Mayo Flynt, president, AT&T Mississippi.

The upgrades will also benefit public safety and first responders on FirstNet – public safety’s dedicated communications platform — and giving Mississippi’s first responders access to the nation’s fastest overall network experience. FirstNet is bringing public safety communications into the 21st century with new, innovative capabilities to help those users stay safe and save lives.

At many of these new locations, our enhancements also bring Band 14 spectrum to the areas. Band 14 is nationwide, high-quality spectrum set aside by the government specifically for FirstNet. We look at Band 14 as public safety’s VIP lane. In an emergency, this band – or lane – can be cleared and locked just for FirstNet subscribers. When not in use by FirstNet subscribers, AT&T customers can enjoy Band 14’s added coverage and capacity.

From 2017 to 2019, AT&T invested nearly $750 million in wireless and wired networks in Mississippi. These investments boost reliability, coverage, speed and overall performance for residents and their businesses, the company said.

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Engaging young readers to explore the world through words



Nora Yates gets her first taste of how much fun books can be. (photo by Kelle Barfield)

For most people, retirement means turning off the alarm clock and relaxing the days away. Vicksburg native Kelle Barfield is not most people.

Barfield’s resume includes a degree in magazine journalism and a move to New York City for positions at Doubleday-Dell Publishing, Random House and Southern Living. She returned to Vicksburg in 1986 and began her position as a technical editor of nuclear procedures at Grand Gulf Nuclear Station. She was planning to finally retire in 2018, when she learned that the founder of Lorelei Books was also retiring, and Vicksburg’s only local bookstore would close.

“Every town needs a bookstore!” Barfield said, so she purchased the restoration-era building and is spending her retirement continuing the legacy of Lorelei.

Vicksburg’s younger readers are grateful she did.

“My father was a voracious reader with an incessantly curious mind. My inherited DNA loves literacy and learning as much as the air I breathe,” Barfield said. Because of this, she tries to instill her love of exploring the world through books in the children that visit her store.

Before the pandemic, Lorelei hosted story readings on Saturdays. The store also offered craft activities, free materials for children to write their own books and hosted guest readers. Children could also participate in a pen-pal program where children write their favorite literary character and get a letter back in the mail.

“Who doesn’t love getting a real letter?” Barfield asked.

She didn’t let the pandemic totally stop her from engaging readers. She created an Easter family drive-by word search challenge downtown. It encouraged children to work with their parents to come up with as many words as they could from letters displayed on large Easter egg posters.

According to Barfield, “Learning should truly be a family activity enjoyed by all.”

Although the pandemic has temporarily stopped some of Lorelei’s programs, Barfield is not giving up. She has been in talks with Marie Cunningham, head of children’s programs for the Warren County-Vicksburg Public Library, about a partnership of online reading events as a substitute for in person story time.

Lorelei has set up a YouTube channel and is working out the kinks to present Facebook video posts of readings.

“We had many ideas prior to the pandemic that we’re hoping to establish once it’s clearer what the future holds for online and in person events,” Barfield said.

Barfield also works with organizations such as United Way and Mutual Credit Union to support literacy in schools.

“We recently used a very generous donation to gift 150 books to A.W. Watson Elementary School in memory of Heidi Burrell,” she said. “She was a United Way staffer who we lost in July. I’m prayerful that ‘Heidi’s Hideout’ will offer the joy of learning to even more youngsters in our region.”

In this age of computers, Kindles and internet superstores, Vicksburg’s young readers are lucky to have Lorelei Books and Kelle Barfield’s version of retirement.

Anyone wanting to donate a book to Heidi’s Hideout can call Lorelei Books at 601-634-8624 and arrange to have a book delivered in their name.

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