Backstory: A very thin blue line
PASS CHRISTIAN, MISS. — Gnarled oaks stretch an eerie canopy across a lonely expanse of Highway 90 as Pass Christian police officer Barry White makes his morning rounds. The Pass is a narrow spit, six miles long and one mile deep. At its lowest, the sleepy Mississippi peninsula is four feet above sea level, at its highest, 30. It wasn't a match for hurricane Katrina's 35-foot storm surge.
Pushing the nose of his cruiser carefully onto the town tennis court, now the trailer-laden town square, officer White slides between a ragtag line of police cars. The hood is up on one. His own vehicle is missing a mirror and hugs the ground so closely the other officers call him "lowrider." The storm took their homes and almost took their lives, but it left behind something else – a dogged determination to preserve the battered shards that remain, including the local police department.
It's a scene playing out all along the Gulf Coast. Many small towns devastated the most by the hurricane are struggling to maintain police and fire departments in the face of slow, or even nonexistent, rebuilding efforts.
This, in turn, has complicated the towns' revivals. The institutions are integral to maintaining the safety and stability of community life. But how can towns keep squad cars on the road and firemen in boots if their tax base has been swept away on the wind? "There are some departments, even volunteer, just closing their doors," says Jim Harmes, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in Grand Blanc, Mich. "They don't have the money to operate."
Tiny Pass Christian is among the hardest hit. With its population dropping from 7,000 before the storm to 2,500 now, it's a daily struggle. And the departments may be needed now more than ever. Crime has doubled here since Katrina. Fire and medical calls have increased. Even copper theft is an issue as the price of the metal has soared: Thieves sometimes rip pipes from the walls as soon as people start rebuilding, flooding their homes again.
Yet no one is giving up the fight. Not police chief John Dubuisson. Not fire chief Rich Marvil. Certainly not the men who serve under them. "We're going to survive here. It's just gonna take a lot more time to get back to the point we were before the storm," says Mr. Marvil. "We're making progress every day, it's just not progress you can actually see."
On a brisk winter day, Mr. Dubuisson hunches over his unfinished plywood desk. He fingers his silver mustache as he talks with Marvil and assistant police chief Thomas Ruspoli. Papers and books litter every surface – a double-wide trailer, which is the temporary police station, doesn't offer much in the way of storage.
In the hallway, a dented blue mailbox serves as the evidence locker. Nearby, officers leave notes to one another on a whiteboard: "Saucier car is running hot. May not last the week." Everything around here is either makeshift or borrowed, and they're grateful for it. With a smile, Dubuisson notes that even though the department lost everything, the trailer came with a few unexpected perks: a washer, a dryer, and a stove.
It's hollow comedy in the end: Truth is, there's little the cash-strapped city can do to help. Property taxes make up 70 percent of Pass Christian's income, and 75 percent of those properties are now just concrete slabs. With half the stores gone, sales-tax receipts are down 50 percent. While Pass Christian once took in $500,000 a month, its revenues are now $200,000.
To help make ends meet, the Pass Christian board of aldermen froze hiring citywide. Most purchases are on hold. The fire department bought two new trucks, but the police make do with a fleet of donated cars.
Finding and keeping people is a top priority. Starting pay for police and firefighters in the Pass is $21,500. Ten miles away in Gulfport (pop. 80,000), salaries begin at $30,000. A commercial by the Gulfport Police Department shows images of splashy new vehicles and impressive technical equipment. The police force here has gone from 22 officers before Katrina to 17, while the fire department is down from 21 men to 16.
There are other challenges. Only one gas station and a smattering of mom and pop stores exist. The only apartment complex to rebuild filled up immediately. Two- to three-bedroom homes – if you're fortunate enough to find one – can rent for as much as $2,000 a month.
Former Pass Christian police officer Clark Diehl says that's why he moved to the Bay St. Louis police department a few miles away. He liked the Pass, but the lack of basic services became too much to handle. When he saw an opportunity for better pay and benefits, he took it.
"We're the lowest paid on the coast," Dubuisson admits. "The people we hire are usually young and have families to look out for. If you can't feed 'em, you can't keep 'em."
"To recruit people, we've got to have something to offer," Marvil agrees. "We don't have that much. We have to keep the guys we've got happy, and it's not easy to do."
City alderman Lou Rizzardi says things are getting harder instead of easier. In the beginning, grants filled some gaps, and other money was available from projects that had been budgeted but were canceled following the storm. Through "creative financing" and old-fashioned belt-tightening, they've made it through the past 18 months, but next year looks grim. "It's going to be very difficult," Mr. Rizzardi admits. "We're going to have a significant reduction in income, and we'll have to make it up somehow – either cut services, increase taxes, or hope somebody helps us out."
White took a pay cut to come to the Pass in 1995. He looks around and wonders why the town has been forgotten since Katrina.
Like many here, he has his own heroic tale of survival to tell. He was among 13 officers trapped in the library, which went from damp carpet to four feet of water in a matter of seconds. White can't swim and was sucked beneath the churning waves twice before scrambling onto the roof with the others. The memories endure and gnaw.
"After the storm, we joked about getting on the roof and losing the cars and stuff, but then reality set in and we were like, 'How are we going to do our jobs?' " he says as he drives through the ruined neighborhoods that make up his beat.
White pauses for a moment as he passes the spot where the library still stands. With a distant look in his eyes, he softly admits that he hasn't had a raise or vacation in three years. But, for him, it isn't about the money. He says it's about the little things, like making a child smile or giving a ride to an elderly resident to spare her the grueling walk down streets still laden with debris. There are moments like last week, when a frantic mother called from her job to say her 8-year-old son had found a gun in the woods.
On a hunch, he drove through the boy's neighborhood, calling his name. What he found made his blood run cold – five boys, ranging from ages 6 to 8, surrounding a working .22 rifle outfitted with a scope. "I'm better off right here helping people," he says. "There ain't much left, but it still belongs to them."
At home, mold is growing in his walls. For now, though, he's not thinking of anything but the work at hand and the people he has sworn to serve and protect. Like everyone else, he hopes others will step in and help, too.
Rizzardi believes the state holds the answer. "They won't leave us hanging," he says. "They just won't. They can't let us die."