Anthony Topazi, a former Mississippi Power Co. president who worked tirelessly to unify and rebuild South Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, died Friday from complications from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Topazi was widely lauded for helping to restore power to South Mississippi residents less than two weeks after Katrina.
“Every meeting, every tough decision, every priority … Anthony was in the middle of it,” said John Hairston, president of Hancock Whitney Bank and the chairman of the Gulf Coast Business Council, which Topazi was founding chairman. “He was an inspiration to work with in the years we served together, whether business or social. His energy was boundless.”
Topazi was tapped in 2004 to lead Mississippi Power after working years at Alabama Power. He had experience responding to disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and ice storms, which proved invaluable when Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005.
In a 2012 Sun Herald story, staff writer Anita Lee recounted Topazi’s role in the chaotic weeks after the storm.
“Temporary headquarters were set up at Mississippi Power’s Service Center on 28th Street in Gulfport,” the story said. “Topazi went on television to say power would be restored in two weeks to all customers who could handle it.
“Some of the work crews milling about that night saw the broadcast. ‘Are you crazy?’ they asked Topazi. ‘Have you been outside? Do you realize how much damage there is?'” Topazi said: ‘I do. I have faith in you that we can get it done.'”
“He recalled: ‘One of my philosophies that I adopted somewhere in my career is, set goals that stun and inspire. They were stunned, but then they were inspired to get it done.'”
“He wrote on a board in the office: ‘Don’t let anything or anyone stand in the way of getting power restored by 6 p.m. Sept. 11.'”
“When someone brought up a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, Topazi pointed to the board. And the crews found a way to get it done. They beat the goal by one day, finishing up Sept. 10 at 6 p.m.”
Former Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel said Saturday, “for a relatively small utility company, that was a Herculean task.”
In the months after the storm, Topazi was appointed vice chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal to help lead the Coast back.
Topazi founded the Gulf Coast Business Council in the summer of 2006 to continue the community’s long-term planning for rebuilding the Gulf Coast, according to Brian Sanderson, who served as the first full-time president of the council.
“He inspired many people on the Gulf Coast to work toward that vision, and what we do have today is a direct result of that vision,” Sanderson said Saturday. “He was able to capture the attention of business and political leaders on the Gulf Coast and in the state to get behind a unified effort for long-term rebuilding and renewal. He believed it was his mission to make the Gulf Coast a better place to live. It was very personal to him. He cared very deeply about the Coast.”
He left the area in 2010 for a job with the utility’s parent company, the Southern Co., in Birmingham, Ala. But by most accounts, Topazi left South Mississippi a different place than when he arrived. He raised millions after Katrina, for example, for a new center that houses Coast nonprofit agencies, some of which might not have survived the storm’s devastation.
“We are saddened to learn of the passing of one of the former leaders of our company,” said current Mississippi Power president and CEO Anthony Wilson. He “fought a gallant fight against a dreaded disease, ALS. He will always be remembered in South Mississippi as one of the leaders who helped our resilient region rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.”
ALS is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named for the New York Yankees great who played 17 seasons in the major leagues before he contracted the disease.
Topazi’s symptoms began before he left Mississippi Power, but a diagnosis took more than a year.
Topazi worked with former Gov. Haley Barbour during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, becoming a driving force for economic redevelopment for the Gulf Coast.
“He was a model of corporate and and community leadership in the wake of Hurricane Katrina,” Barbour said Saturday. “He really was a giant in the story of Mississippi’s response and recovery.
“He was a great ally to me and a true friend.”
Funeral arrangements for Topazi are not yet known.