By Hook or by Crook, Surviving Storm
Monday, September 19, 2005
GULFPORT, Miss. -- Hurricane Katrina has transformed Mississippi's mayors into car thieves, and senators into blockade runners. Isolated by the initial hit of the storm and failed by the slow federal response, citizens have fended for themselves in some original and not entirely legal ways. Brent Warr, the Republican mayor of Gulfport, even ordered his police chief to hot-wire a truck.
"When you send your law enforcement out to steal things, that's when you know you're in a different situation," Warr says.
In Gulfport, Warr did everything by the book, right up until he started stealing. His force of 225 police officers and 190 firefighters stayed on the job in 24-hour shifts. Fire Chief Pat Sullivan went into the storm to cut away felled trees from the roads leading to the hospitals. In the city's sea-blue antebellum City Hall, Warr worked without power.
But Gulfport was still without help three days after the storm, and Warr's control over the situation was slipping. Looting broke out downtown. When Warr drove a utility vehicle down U.S. 90, he watched as his longtime family business, Warr's Men's Clothing, was ransacked.
Worst of all, the city was running out of fuel. Generators were about to fail, rescue vehicles were running out of gas. One local hospital radioed that it was on backup power and had no water, and that looters were circling.
Warr turned to his chief of police, Stephen T. Barnes. There was a private fuel transport vehicle -- Warr doesn't remember whose -- parked in a lot behind a chain-link fence. Warr had the lock cut. "Can we hot-wire it?" he asked.
Barnes said, "I wasn't cut out to be a crook; that's why I went into law enforcement."
"Well, can we get someone from the jail to do it?" Warr asked.
Thirty minutes later, the truck was sitting in the City Hall parking lot. That was just one episode in Warr's life of petty crime over the past three weeks.
When the mayor needed to feed the 500 or so exhausted first responders, he stole a stove. The nearby Blowfly Inn, a restaurant and catering company, had a portable kitchen parked in a storage lot. Warr ordered the locks cut and installed the kitchen next to City Hall, where it has been in service ever since, with the owner's permission.
"We were literally fending for ourselves," Warr says. "Sitting in a well complaining because no one will throw you a rope is not going to get you anywhere. Instead, you climb out. You hope someone gives you a hand and pulls you. But either way, we're getting out of the well."
FEMA Slow to Help
In the three weeks since the storm, Mississippians have in some ways felt as cut off as they did on the day it struck. Sen. Trent Lott (R) says Mississippians "are disenchanted" with the federal response in their state.