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Backstory: A very thin blue line

By Carmen K. SissonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2007



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.

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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.

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