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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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This project is evolving. Our daily dispatches coverage has been retired. Click here to see what happened in the area between mid October and January 1, 2006.

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – The cops of Hancock County, so instrumental in saving hundreds of their fellow citizens from Hurricane Katrina’s deadly pounding, could use a little help themselves now.

From the police departments of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, to the sheriff’s department, to the local branch of the state Highway Patrol, they’re drying out and resting up, more than seven weeks after the killer storm deluged their communities.

For many, though, the future is about as tangled as the mounds of debris that loom endlessly along the beats they patrol.

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Bay St. Louis is cannibalizing police cars that were wrecked by Katrina for wheels, tires and other parts. (Jim Seida / MSNBC.com)

"It’s going to be a struggle for at least two years," says Bay St. Louis Police Chief Frank McNeil. In his 14th

year as the city’s top lawman, McNeil these days sports a black T-shirt emblazoned with the word "POLICE" in big white block letters since his own home took on five feet of water, ruining his regular clothes and uniforms.

Infrastructure gone
A huge issue is infrastructure. The storm claimed most of the police cars in his town and Waveland. While Bay St. Louis’ police station came through intact, Waveland’s has been condemned. The Highway Patrol lost the offices from which its state troopers patrol the area. There’s no operating jail in the county.

Add to this immediate blow the fact that local governments have taken huge revenue hits as a result of damage to the property tax base, and lost utility user fees, sales taxes and revenue from casinos and you have the perfect fiscal storm.

"Will I still have a job?" wonders Bay St. Louis Officer Ernest Taylor. "Without a tax base, how will they keep me? The mayor has promised us there won’t be any layoffs, but how realistic is that?"

On top of all this, there’s the human tragedy. All agencies saw many of their officers and other employees lose their own homes to Katrina.

"We had seven troopers that wound up losing everything," says Warren Strain, a spokesman with the Mississippi Department of Public Safety. That’s nearly a fourth of the troopers who live in the area.

A force left homeless
In Waveland, "I can only think of one (member of the force of 27) … who didn’t lose his home," Mayor Tommy Longo says. Despite that, not a single member has left, "morale couldn’t be higher" and "no community, no mayor, could ask for more."

In Bay St. Louis, with a pre-Katrina force of 28, "probably 20 of our officers have totally lost their homes in one fashion or another," says Deputy Chief Dave Stepro. Stepro, 54, a tall, clear-eyed man with salt-and-pepper hair and mustache is among them with "one of the cleanest slabs in Hancock County."

"I’m still living at the police station," says the 10-year veteran of the force. "I live in my office with my wife, who is a police officer with Waveland, and my Great Dane." Gone are the couple’s dreams of building a home on 14 acres they own outside of town; instead, they’ll look for a new place inland, safe for the two elderly aunts who live with them and a trio each of cats and horses.

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Frank McNeil is in his 14th year as chief of police in Bay St. Louis. (Jim Seida / MSNBC.com)

It’s the human toll that has Chief McNeil and other police officials worried. He’s pretty sure, given the town’s financial straits, that he won’t be able to fill any vacancies on his force. He has already lost three officers and expects to lose one or two more as a direct result of Katrina.

Of those who remain, "These officers got to get somewhere they can call home." Even when they get settled in temporary housing, trailers and so forth, "It concerns me because they’ve got families, children. How long are they going to want to live like that?"

One problem small-town Bay St. Louis doesn’t have is crime. "Maybe a little bit more than ‘Mayberry RFD,’" says Stepro. "We had our town drunks and our dope dealers and maybe a domestic (disturbance) now and then. … If we had one murder every other year, that was a lot."

Sporadic looting has died down
After Katrina, there were a few looting cases, but that has died down. McNeil worries a bit that as businesses start to restock and reopen, there could be a spate of burglaries.

Waveland’s Mayor Longo echoes McNeil. "Eventually, it’s all going to boil down to money," he says. "Everything everywhere you turn in the city of Waveland has to be rebuilt from scratch."

But the real concern is how to replace the cars and other equipment and how to make payroll when initial emergency funds run out and visiting officers from places like Virginia and Florida – to whom McNeil again and again expresses gratitude – go home.

The state doesn’t have a lot of answers. The Department of Public Safety’s Strain says his agency is struggling to deal with its own losses. "I think there will be federal monies available and it will get us through the majority of that."

Strain sees a "silver lining" to Katrina in that "we have a great opportunity to go in and make improvements" in some areas, especially inter-agency communications, already singled out as a problem in post 9/11 evaluations.

Hancock County has already benefited in that regard, moving for the first time to a countywide dispatch system with all new equipment that was put in place after the storm by visiting Florida police. But it’s unclear who will ultimately pay the bill.

Gifts to the force
And there have been outright gifts. In his office, piled with donations, McNeil excitedly shows off enough "brand spanking new" police duty belts to outfit his whole force, donated by the state. And gun-maker Glock donated enough .40-caliber pistols to equip every cop in Bay St. Louis.

Those items, ordinarily provided by officers themselves but mostly lost in Katrina, will personally save each cop hundreds of dollars, a welcome windfall in a department where pay starts at about $9 an hour.

On the bigger bills, they and mayors like Eddie Favre of Bay St. Louis and Longo of Waveland must wait, hoping for federal largesse. "I pray to God that the federal government steps in," Longo says.

The area’s congressman, Rep. Gene Taylor, who also lost his home in the storm, says he’s "very much aware" of municipal law enforcement’s needs in Katrina’s wake..

Taylor’s not aware of a particular federal push to authorize funding specifically for police, but points to the Community Disaster Loan Act signed by President Bush on Oct. 7 that provides a $1 billion loan fund for local governments.

Grant would have been preferable
"A lot of us would have preferred that it be a grant rather than a loan," the Democrat and former Bay St. Louis councilman said, but Republican House leaders insisted on the latter. "I was of the opinion that you do as good as you can right now."

But in a sales-tax-based economy with no sales tax base, says Longo, "a loan isn't real appetizing."

Taylor says he has already assured one mayor that he is committed to push for new legislation that will forgive those loans. "Good policemen are hard to come by and I share Chief McNeil’s concerns that we may lose some good ones."

To McNeil, that’s really the bottom line. He is so proud of his force. "I can’t say enough about them," says the silver-haired, soft-spoken 61-year-old whose calm manner seems more fitting for a country doctor than a retired New Orleans cop who had a sextuple heart bypass almost one year to the day before Katrina struck.

"These guys stuck it out. That shows a lot of character in the department. Most normal people would have just been ‘the heck with, let’s get out of here.'"

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12 COMMENTS

Fortunately for these communties, the officers are still in place, but federal help will be required to ensure these assets still in place are able to do their jobs properly. The people are the real infrastructure...if the police departments are supported financially, these communties will be able to rebuild. Good job, guys.

I personally would like to thank all those who have hung in there. I have family in Bay St Louis who also lost their home. The one thing I must say however, is the professionalism, dedication, and loyalty to the public and to their jobs, can not be measured. My hatis off to each of you, and my prayers are with all of you who give of yourself. Many thanks, and I will continue to remember al of you in my prayers.

$9 an hour starting for a cop? It is amazing how we can indirectly pay minutely talented celebrities like Paris Hilton to be a "star" while real heroes get the shaft.

My thanks to the brave people who are enduring so much for so long.

I am appreciating reading these present day issues. I so appreciate your police force and the fact you continues on-the-job under such dire conditions. May God bless you. I will continue to pray for you. I was appalled when we gave $50 million to Pakistan when we had such a great need here for those funds. I don't why our government wants to be the "Big Daddy" to the world. My legislators are Democrats and I will ask them to make this a grant. How can there be a tax base when there aren't people to tax? Unreal!!

I'd like to know where are all the revenues going from all the gambling casinos that used to located in Miss. and La.?? They must have millions of dollars of revenue generated from gambling. I also agree with the poor decision making of giving millions of dollars in aid to foreign countries when our own are still suffering from hurricanes. I sympathize with the other countries plight but let's take care of our own first.

What amazes me is that those of us in other parts of the country not affected by natural disasters are going about our everyday life somewhat oblivious to the suffering in places like Louisianna, Mississippi and most recently Florida. Reading about these issues really helps me relize that my own hardships pale in comparison to those that are homeless and at times hopeless. May this season pass quickley!

I've always loved Mississippi, and was proud to have been born, raised and still living here. My heart swelled with pride as I watched truck after truck of items pull out of West Point, Columbus and Starkville headed south to try to ease the suffering of our own. My thoughts and prayers are with each and every one that lost so much. My thanks go out to every one from all over the country that sent help our way. God Bless the ones who lost so much, and the ones who gave so much.

is the time to show to the world, what a great country we are, let's unite and forget differences, i also believe we should highligt all the countries that have come to our aid

i am currently in iraq , yes i was one of those officers Chief Mcneil , spoke about. Pride in my country and pride in my city , with only $9.15 a hour it was hard not to take this job i'm presently doing in Iraq. away from family away from the citizens of Bay st louis, ms. but understand after katrina i had no choice , my heart and soul go to the citizens of bay st louis, ms I'll be back. but why do they pay us police officers such change ? how can we take care of our families ( the citizens of bay st louis ) ? it is more depressing than katrina that we have to go somewhere else ( iraq ) to rebuild

There is one organization that has tried to step up to the plate. The Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers, USA and CAN (Joint Task Force for Hurricane Relief) began with modest financial and volunteer labor in Gulfport where they had the nearest local chapter. Persons wanting more info or to donate directly to aid law enforcement and fire personnel can still do so or just obtain information at www.fcpo.org

Deputies from the Otero County Sheriff's Office made three trips to Gulfport on their own time, to deliver clothing and supplies to police officers in the area. One of your State troopers, I think his last name was Ivory, lost everything , including the home he was building. One of our citizens donated a 5th wheel travel trailer for the trooper and the deputies delivered it to him. This is the type of people that are in law enforcement you never hear about. Hats off to all of those that chose to help.

We had the pleasure of meeting police chief Frank McNiel this last November while we were volunteering in Waveland. This man and his wife offered their home for us to stay in. We declined, but I was so impressed with the friendliness of Frank and his wife Debbie. They truly are great people along with all the other people we met while there. We came to help them and I have never been shown so much appreciation for the little we were able to help. God Bless all the people of Bay St. Louis and Waveland.

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