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Hurricane Katrina

January 16, 2009

In the days following the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina I, as Mayor of Beaufort, South Carolina, was approached regularly by people in town whose question was always the same: “Mayor, we want to do something, what can we do?” Several days after the storm had passed, I called the Municipal Association in Jackson, Mississippi to ask whether there were any towns along the Mississippi coast that had been hurt by Katrina that roughly matched up with my town, Beaufort. We have shrimpers, farmers, retirees, a strong military presence. Many of us are church-goers and we are about 13,000 strong. The man at the Municipal Association said I should call the new mayor of Long Beach, Mississippi, Billy Skellie — that Long Beach had been badly hurt and that it is a town of about 15,000. Billy Skellie, he said, had been Long Beach’s mayor for about two-and-a-half months. Long Beach, Mississippi Of course Long Beach didn’t have phones, but Beaufort being in a hurricane zone, we have people here who go to devastated areas to help and one of those, Captain Perry Hall, stopped by my office on his way to Biloxi that day. I asked him to go over to Long Beach and dig up the mayor and get him on the phone with me. A couple of days later Billy Skellie, who is an excellent mayor and a courageous man, called and I was able to ask him what we in Beaufort could do to help his city. He said he needed two things: a tanker of gas because when the Feds showed up they commandeered all the gas at the gas stations and now the people of Long Beach who have no water and sewer and whose houses are devastated who want to leave can’t leave because their cars have no gas and no way to get any. Mayor Skellie further said that he could use as many guys with chain saws as we could provide. I said I’d get to work on both requests. The gas was easy. Through the United Way here in Beaufort we put out the word we needed donations to send gas down to our newly-adopted town. Enough money was raised in the first 48 hours to send two tankers. And gas prices were through the roof! These tankers pulled up in front of Long Beach’s fire station, the only municipal building in town left standing, and gave their gas away to Long Beach’s residents until they were drained dry. Meanwhile back in Beaufort I called a meeting of everyone with a chainsaw who wanted to go to Long Beach. About a hundred guys showed up: ministers, bikers, tree men, farmers and US Marines. We set a date and ten days later — my ever-resourceful wife having with the help of Steve Brown a local caterer organized a kitchen crew, and the United States Marines having provided a mess tent and its furniture — in a motorcade with busses and tractor-trailers carrying heavy equipment we made the 8 hour drive to Long Beach about 200 strong. The crew worked there (sleeping in camping tents we had each brought for ourselves and showering in FEMA’s forest fire showers) for a long weekend clearing streets and driveways. While we were there Baptists met Baptists, Episcopalians met Episcopalians, Boys Club folk met Boys Club folk, United Way folk met United Way folk, firefighters met firefighters, cops met cops and relationships were formed that have lasted to today and through which the institutions of Long Beach (and Beaufort) have benefited enormously. In the ensuing year, for example, Beaufort sent Long Beach through our churches a Harvest Festival, a Thanksgiving Feast which included Turkey for everyone in town, and a Christmas visit from Santa that included presents for every child in the Long Beach school system. In addition when the American Wind Symphony Orchestra approached Beaufort about bringing us a performance, we ascertained from them that they’d be near Long Beach six weeks before coming to Beaufort. So we negotiated a package deal for a concert for each town and raised the money here for both. Furthermore, millions of dollars were raised in Beaufort to help Long Beach’s churches and other non-profits rebuild. All these efforts and events and much more served, I am told, to lift the spirits of the beleaguered but strong people of Long Beach. Beaufort benefited as well of course. We had helped someone who needed help. And we had been reminded first hand and up close of the awesome power of Mother Nature, of man’s inability to contain it, and of all that is needed in the wake of such a disaster.


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