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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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WAVELAND, Miss. -- Justice is a very personal experience in Hancock County these days, with criminal defendants sitting elbow to elbow with prosecutors and close enough to the jury to hear each gasp or whisper of disbelief.

“It’s certainly something they don’t prepare you for in law school,” Assistant District Attorney John Gargiulo says of the cramped conditions in what one court clerk described as the “horrible, makeshift” courtroom where civil and serious criminal cases are being heard.

Conditions are probably even worse at the Justice Court, which handles misdemeanor cases in the county.

Located in a former dance studio in the the rural community of Kiln, the tiny court’s clientele regularly overflows into the parking lot and the staff has a hard time concentrating because the courtroom is just on the other side of a hastily erected plywood wall from their desks.

“We have no ceilings in our offices, so we hear everything that’s going on in court,” says Justice Court Clerk Liz Martin. “… It poses problems because we’re still trying to conduct business.”

Welcome to the Hancock County justice system, post-Katrina style, just one more way in which the storm has reshaped life in this hardest hit area of Mississippi.

The storm forced judicial authorities to jury-rig a system from scratch by blowing the roof off the old County Courthouse in Bay St. Louis and flooding the stately 96-year-old building, which remains closed a year after the storm. It also destroyed the Justice Court offices on Highway 90.

Take a tour of the old courthouse building with Tim Kellar, the Hancock Country chancery clerk.

The disruption didn’t stop there.

The storm soaked most of the land and court records stored at the old courthouse, all of which had to quickly be digitally copied, and destroyed the jail at the rear of the courthouse, forcing sheriff’s deputies to drive suspects ordered to jail to the lockup in Pearl River, La., about an hour and 20 minutes way.

Read previous post: Preserving the paper trail

By disrupting the lives of so many of the county’s citizens, it also effectively ended the term of the grand jury that returns criminal indictments, halting the initiation of new criminal cases.

A brief, unofficial break

The Chancery Court, which handles civil cases, never officially ceased functioning, says Tim Kellar, the Hancock County chancery clerk, though as a practical matter “we went two weeks where people weren’t able to file court cases.”

And even when the court opened for business on Oct. 17 in temporary quarters at the old Hancock school, it couldn’t process cases for several months.

“We developed a big backlog,” says Kellar’s top aide, Larrinell Scarborough. “We had people coming in and we had no docket books or files or anything. … All we could do was file stamp (documents) and give them certified copies off a laptop.”

Attorneys in private practice also were dealt a horrible blow.

“Many of them lost every file that they had,” Kellar says.

The Chancery Court was only able to resume hearing cases in late September, after receiving permission from the State Supreme Court to do so at the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport.

The Circuit Court, which adjudicates criminal cases, issued an order shortly after the storm postponing “all motions, trials and hearings previously scheduled between Aug. 29 and Oct. 31” and telling interested parties they would be rescheduled “as soon as is practical.”

Because of the impossibility of seating juries in those first chaotic months after the storm, the Circuit Court didn't reopen until Dec. 5, when court offices and a courtroom were ready in the county government complex off Longfellow Road in Waveland.

The courts’ hiatus might have lasted a lot longer had it not been for Superior Court Judge William C. Pate of San Diego.

California judge to the rescue

After learning of the scope of the court calamity through a request for assistance posted on the Web site of the National Center for State Courts, the now retired jurist made three trips to the Mississippi coast to deliver truckloads of office equipment salvaged from the California surplus, including desks, chairs, computers and fax machines.

“He even brought books that went to the county library,” says Circuit Court administrator Becky Payne. “It’s one thing to write out a check, but he did a lot more. He’s come down here and touched us three times.”

The opening of a new courtroom was a big step toward normalcy, but its close quarters continue to require a high degree of flexibility from judges and attorneys – sometimes literally.

060825_garguiloAssistant District Attorney John Gargiulo

“I’ve had to lean way over the table so the defense attorney can edge past behind me to hand something to the judge,” Gargiulo, the assistant D.A., says with a laugh.

Other challenges include a noisy air conditioner right by the witness stand and the fact that the jury box is so close to the defendants table that “when the defendant and attorney are discussing something, there’s an opportunity for the jury to hear that,” he says.

Beyond the claustrophobic facilities, the prosecutor says that trying cases in the wake of Katrina has been complicated by the loss of evidence in many cases.

“They maintain a lot of evidence at the police departments and much of it was either lost or tainted,” Gargiulo says. “Bay St. Louis’ locker was completely destroyed.”

In a few cases – “not even a dozen” – the loss has compelled Gargiulo to negotiate plea deals to lesser charges, he says.

He’s also had problems finding some witnesses.

Some witnesses 'just gone'

“A lot of them are just gone,” he says. “They’ve either met their demise or just left the area.”

Despite such impediments, the system is working well, Gargiulo says.

“I’m impressed because it is working,” he says. “These people are amazingly resilient.”

Senior Second Circuit Court District Judge Kosta N. Vlahos echoes that sentiment. He says he had two primary areas of concern in the immediate aftermath of the storm: Whether the loss of so many local attorneys would make it hard to find lawyers for indigent defendants and if it would be possible to find jurors to serve on the county’s criminal grand jury, which meets for six-month sessions.

Neither proved to be a problem, he says.

“The first time we did try, we were able to get a grand jury,” he says. “… People in the South have a different attitude when it comes to serving on a jury or in the armed forces.”

The jury seated in February has made up for lost time, having heard 201 cases to date compared to an average of 183 for a six-month term, Gargiulo says. The grand jury empaneled just before the storm heard just 23 cases before being forcibly disbanded by the storm.

Overall, the Circuit Court also is getting back up to speed, having handled 256 civil cases and 133 criminal cases so far this year, compared to 421 civil cases and 181 criminal cases last year, according to court officials.

Chancery Court filings are down for the year, from an average of about 7,000 filings by mid-August to “in the 4,000s or low 5,000s” this year, but the pace is slowly picking up, says Kellar.

Contrary to anecdotal evidence from other areas of the disaster zone, Hancock County hasn’t seen a substantial increase in divorce or domestic violence cases – despite a horrific high-profile cooking oil killing in the Diamondhead community.

Commitment cases increase

But Chancery Court workers have noticed an increase in mental health commitment cases, which normally average one or two a month but have been running at nearly six a month this year. These cases involve individuals deemed mentally incompetent by a close relative, law enforcement officer or a social worker and require hearings that can result in them being sent to a state hospital until they can be stabilized.

“Some are violent, some are just out of their heads,” said Chancery Court Deputy Clerk Darlene Lee. “They think they’re God or they think they’re angels.”

As they conduct the business of the court, staff in the Chancery and Circuit Courts can at least see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

Kellar, the chancery clerk, says that plans have recently been finalized to repair the old courthouse building and indicates he hopes to rededicate the historical building in November 2007.

At the Justice Court, which resumed operations at the dance studio in October, the future is more opaque.
“We don’t really have the time to stop and think about it,” says Martin, the Justice Court clerk. “There’s not a whole lot of buildings to choose from, so I guess we’ll be here for a while.”

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29 COMMENTS

What a mess! God bless that retired judge Pate for helping out. There must be several thousand other retired judges like him, and here in California they get a pretty hefty retirement. Where are they? Is it only us regular citizens that want to help our fellow Americans?

Thank God for people like Judge Pate. We could use more of them.

The media are always talking about New Orleans and all the devastation there, but tend to forget that the Mississippi Gulf Coast was ground zero. 70 miles of beautiful coastland devastated.

We are helping ourselves, but we need more Judge Pates to step up.

Cramped spaces my foot! Built in 1912 and the coartroom is upstairs. I'll bet it was air conditioned! Go back a few years. Cramped spaces arn't that bad.

Homeland Security has all those tempery houses standing by. Why not put them in the parking lot or a near by open space for court rooms. As for needing mor judges, Washingto has has a lot of usless one,s laying around. They could be put to constructive work.

Ahh what a shame. I feel so sorry for those poor attorneys. What a joke!

It's amazing how well they've been able to carry on with business after such a horrible storm. It's interesting to see the old courthouse, but I could have gone without the description of the executions, and bodies dropping in the window.

My thoughts and prayers are with everyone living along the MS gulf coast. I'm probably the minority here when I say I am sick to death of hearing about New Orleans. I have friends who live there in Gulfport who lost everything except the clothes on their back. While what happened in New Orleans is tragic it is nothing compared to the utter defistation that you all have had to endure and still endure. People need to realize that YOU not New Orleans took the direct hit, You not new orleans have nothing except a slab of concrete that might or might not be your home. People need to remember that you like New Orleans are still suffering. They at least have returned to somewhat of normacly where as you are stilltrying to get the basic needs covered. Everyone along the Gulf of MS has and will continue to have my prayers. You will make it through this. God Speed and God bless everyone there

I wonder how many poor, ignorant defendants have been railroaded by this obviously unconstitutional make shift attempt at justice.

But, of course, they had to get the wheels rolling again otherwise a lot of the DAs, judges, and court flunkies would have needed to actually go get real jobs to support themselves.

To bad Katrina didn't do a better job cleaning things up. All it did was make an excuse for more sloppy and skewed justice in the Gulf States.

Sounds like the normal aftermath of a large storm in the 1960's (Carla). Great to see they are working the issues.
I don't know why we think that people can't work through whatever issues Mother Nature places infront of us. Today most think that we should be given everything and not have to work for any of it if we have a problem.
To bad Abraham above wasn't involved maybe that would have solved all the problems at least it would have gotten his mind in the proper place.

Wow Abraham Lincoln, aren't you brave to write such lovely comments and not identify yourself. I could write something rude in response but I think your lovely attitude say's it all.

I'm amazed that the police, judges, and attorneys are able to conduct business in that really small space. I wish them luck and hope they get better working conditions quickly. Its nice to hear about places other then New Orleans. Rita, Nebraska

My thoughts are: Why were the "powers at be" not prepared for this type of disaster? I work with governmental agencies every day and they all are required BY LAW to have disaster plans in place should something happen that could possibly distroy the local offices. They also have micro-fished all critical legal documents, maps, etc. and stored them in fire/water proof vaults. Why haven't the local governmental representatives (City Engineer, Mayor, Govenor, etc) been held accountable for their failures? Where has ALL the BILLIONS of rebuilding funds gone? I certainly believe that these funds should have gone to rebuild the most basic of governmental resources. Also, It's always less expensive more more productive to start with a "fresh cement slab" rather that attempting to rebuild a building that is 150 years old, lets be practical here since some of the money is mine!

I simply do not understand why several of the comments said they were tired of hearing about New Orleans. Did you all see the people stranded for days on roof tops without food and water? Did you all know that 80% of the entire city was under watr for DAYS? Do you know that many citizens had to be evacuated and are too poor to return home? Do you know that the government is doing nothing to build affordable housing to help these citizens to return to their homes? Noone is saying that other arears were not hit or were not important. But the suffering of the people as the begged for food and water for days while our goverment sent NOONE was visible for all to see in America and around the World. So yes, New Orleans will long be the topic of discussion among many people. What we should be discussing is why the levees are not being built to withstand a Catogory 5 storm. Why dont we have a Team studying how the Dutch system is built? Why are those trailers still in Hope, Ark.? Why is FEMA not disbursing the money that has been allocated to help rebuild the Gulf Coast? I feel that too many writers were critical of New Orleans when the same storm hit all of the Gulf Coast. Now is not the time to be divided. It is the time to pull together as Americans. The entire Gulf Coast needs the Government to step up and take care of CITIZENS. THIS IS WHY WE PAY OUR TAXES.
Evelyn

Dear Babe -

Hate to break it to you but I'll bet I have more money in this than you. We pay Federal, state and local taxes as well. That makes me have a bigger say in this than you, and I say rebuild the original building.

Dang, Babe move to Ms. and find out what a car tag is gonna run ya....And you think we don't pay taxes?...But I'm afraid that is due to the people we have voted for in the past. My vote is gonna change....In some places. Shoot can't Bit** if you don't vote!!!!...I vote And Bitc**!!

Amen! to Evelyn of Memphis' remarks. First, though, my heart goes out to everyone in Mississippi who now has a slab instead of a house--and good luck rebuilding. I know it will take many years for Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Long Beach, and the rest of your communities to fully come back after America's worst natural disaster, and as can be seen in this entry and a recent one on schools, you still need a lot of help. But I'm confident that with your perseverance, positive attitude, co-operation, and capable leadership, you'll eventually "git 'er done!"

Evelyn--like you, I don't understand why so many are tired of hearing about New Orleans. I am aware that some are unhappy with the fact that Katrina's damaging effects in Mississippi, Alabama, etc. were barely covered compared to those of the flooding in New Orleans. I'm not trivializing this, because Mississippi did catch hell from Katrina as she obliterated or nearly obliterated whole communities as she did so. But the storm blew right through. After she had gone, Mississippians were free to begin assessing the damage, cleaning up debris, and taking other halting steps towards putting their shattered lives back together. So, Mississippi got a head start on recovery.

However, for Louisiana, the day of Katrina's landfall was only the beginning of at least a week of hell not for the faint of heart. Besides New Orleans' massive flooding, Louisiana was tortured by huge fires which made New Orleans' skyline resemble Baghdad's and could not be put out in spite of ironically being surrounded by floodwaters.

Louisiana felt the anguish of those who'd been forced to gravitate to the Superdome and Convention Center--which quickly metastasized into hot, humid, dark, filthy, festering sores where rapes and other violence took place and from where hordes of hungry, thirsty, sick, suffering humanity cried out for help on national TV. And waited...and waited...and waited.

Louisiana fell apart in the sickening sort of collapse usually seen only overseas--where the streets of New Orleans became Baghdad's. Louisiana was torn apart by leaders--Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin--who bickered and pointed fingers instead of working together to make order out of the chaos. In fairness, though, this catastrophe was off the charts, the likes of which had not been seen in America in many years. The levee breaches and rapid flooding had been a sort of "shock and awe." Is it any wonder that they were at a loss regarding what to do--let alone not being able to get together on dealing with a rapidly deteriorating situation?

And Louisiana was also embroiled in a relationship from hell with a Bush Administration clueless as to how to handle her excruciating crisis. Not to mention FEMA--I read in Michael Eric Dyson's Come Hell or High Water where, In Jefferson Parish, FEMA cut the telephone lines. Now, WHY would FEMA have done that? I mean, it doesn't make sense because this was LOUISIANA--not some foreign land with which America was at war.

And it took almost a month before the floodwaters were pumped out of New Orleans, then Rita hit and caused some new flooding, so residents couldn't even begin assessing the damage and cleaning up until the floodwaters were out of there.

Fast forward to a year after Katrina. It is shameful that with all the hardships New Orleanians, Mississippians, etc. are going through, the broadcast media is not reporting as much out of the storm zone as it should be. I don't know about the other major networks, but NBC Nightly's Katrina anniversary coverage (with the exception of Mon. 8/28 when there were several reports and Brian Williams' special) was disappointing. On Tues, 8/29, there was only 1 full report out of New Orleans in spite of the fact that Williams was anchoring from that city. Also, Williams interviewed President Bush and, in spite of the fact that this was KATRINA'S anniversary, asked him only 1 Katrina-related question. (The rest were on such things as 9/11--and I must ask, WHY couldn't such questions have waited until 9/11? I mean, this was KATRINA'S anniversary.) And there were no Mississippi reports until last Sat. night, and no Katrina coverage since then.

This near-total news blackout prevails in spite of the fact that Louisiana and Mississippi still desperately need help. Maybe having more attention paid to what people in those states must deal with could at least get FEMA to release the allocated money it has been sitting on, if not get more money appropriated.

Louisiana is especially in a world of hurt. New Orleans is a "tale of two cities"--small areas including her French Quarter which are in relatively good shape and large areas such as the Lower 9th and Lakeview which look worse than Baghdad. Her water, power, and sewerage systems are in war zone-like conditions. Her streets are full of potholes. Her fire department, schools, justice system, hospitals, etc. are not up to serving a city even of her diminished size. Her mental health system is having a breakdown.

And Louisiana's "Road Home" program, which is supposed to help her flooded-out homeowners if insurance didn't cover their losses, is bottled up in red tape. Also, Louisiana wasn't able to get enough money to sufficiently help her homeowners. (I don't feel like going into the sordid details of what happened to it at length right now--but originally Louisiana came up with the Baker Plan, (which the "Road Home" replaced) which would have been more helpful to her homeowners. In short, Louisiana got the shaft from the Bush Administration.)

Speaking of getting the shaft, when President Bush visited Mississippi and Louisiana, he brought NO new promises of aid. Which is shameful, because just a week before, he announced that a $230 MILLION donation to LEBANON-- part of which is to go to her SCHOOLS so they can open in time for the school year, part to help rebuild HOMES. (Sound familiar?) Hello?!? Mr. President? How about using this money for rebuilding AMERICAN schools and AMERICAN homes in MISSISSIPPI and LOUISIANA?

As a taxpayer, I think it's morally wrong for Bush to be throwing $230 million at Lebanon like so many Mardi Gras beads when he can't give Mississippi and Louisiana the help they need. But, unfortunately, as long as TV networks either don't cover or under-cover the storm zone, keeping the situation out of sight, out of mind, with most Americans unaware of what conditions in the region are really like, the Bush Administration will think it's O.K. to squander in places like Lebanon and others where they don't like Americans money sorely needed at home in Louisiana and Mississippi.

We need to e-mail network news blogs such as dailynightly.msnbc.com and other places viewer feedback can be sent to and let them know we want news out of New Orleans, Mississippi, and the rest of the storm zone. I do this regularly. Your e-mails may not be posted--sometimes mine aren't--but I keep trying. I figure that someone at the network must be reading them to decide what to post and what not to--and hopefully getting the message. So, if yours are not posted, don't get discouraged--and above all, DON'T GIVE UP. The media need to know there are viewers who DO NOT feel Katrina's aftereffects and recovery should be considered old news and want to see Mississippi, New Orleans, and other storm zone coverage.

Olivia, I must say, in reading your posts it is obvious that you have become an outspoken, empassioned and knowledgeable advocate for Katrina survivors everywhere. Thank you wholeheartedly for your support, understanding, genuine concern and willingness to take up for a bunch of people that most of the country would just as soon forget about, and wishes would just go away, one year later.
Frankly, I could have never envisioned a day where people around the country would openly question my integrity, work ethic, intelligence, honesty, or sense of responsibility on the basis of sensationalized negative reporting of stories in the aftermath of Katrina- maybe not me personally, but my friends, family and community. To have to defend one's self and community from such an inquisition at a time when we had so much more to deal with was really troubling. To tell the truth, that was something that really surprised me, and may have had an even bigger impact on me than anything Katrina did to me or my family. However, it has not overshadowed the generous amount of caring, unselfishness and dedication that I have witnessed in the last year, from the people that have helped us in our time of need. Thank you to all of you, too. You know who you are.

I have to agree with Olivia on "why are we giving money to Lebanon"? Gee don't our people need homes, roads and our children need schools? What did we have to do in Lebanons destuction? Nothing{I hope}. Man I mean we have people in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas who still need help!

Mike--You're welcome. And thank you very much for the kind, encouraging words.

I have seen some of the nasty remarks and have noticed how the geographically inept seem to be unclear on the concept of Mississippi, which they apparently confuse with New Orleans (probably because of news coverage out of there), but those awful generalizations you mention aren't even fair to make about New Orleanians, many of whom are struggling just as hard against immense odds to nurse their beloved city back to health as Mississippians are their communities.

Strange, isn't it--how some people can find it so easy to be hurtful and mean-spirited towards people they don't even know, from a distance? Perhaps they're wimps who wouldn't have the courage to say such things to your face. Maybe it makes them feel like the "big boys on the block" when all they're really doing is showing how small-minded they are. What they say says much more about THEM then it does about you or your family, friends or community.

However, I'm very happy that the mean so-and-sos aren't overshadowed by other people's caring, unselfishness, etc. God bless these people, especially those who volunteer to help out. I wish there were some way I could come down to Mississippi myself and help, but between being too financially and physically fragile and having too many commitments and responsibilities at home, I cannot. So while I may not be able to offer a strong back, I can offer an empathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on as well as my encouragement and moral support. Take care.

I would like to point out to everyone out there that since Katrina there seem to have been a rise of underage DUI's and misc. charges against 17-21 year olds. Adults are more capable of dealing with the changes we have given even though this is hard. Imagine a pre-adult, or young adult going thru such a court system. After their world too has been turned upside down. There is so much this county did not even have for this age group before the storm but now it is worst. The legal system appears to be after this age group even harder but they are doing nothing to entertain this age group, to help this age group deal. So many very young adults have stayed in this county without their parents.
Lets fix the legal system but someone please help us fix this age group instead of letting them slip thru the cracks and than they get arrested etc.
These kids are our future.

Your future--Your thought-provoking post made me very sad. Obviously the underage DUI's and other charges against 17-21-year-olds are merely a symptom of your area's post-hurricane emotional turmoil. The young people who have been ending up in the courts are clearly in a lot of psychological pain.

Some sort of counseling service (preferably FREE so storm survivors who've already lost so much don't have yet another expense to worry about) should be set up so youth troubled by everything they went through and what they must deal with these days don't have to turn to drink or other substance abuse, or engage in other hazardous or negative behavior. It would be best to help these deeply wounded youth heal now and hopefully prevent such things than wait until something happens and the police and courts are involved.

I know there are so-called human beings out there who bristle about seeing their tax dollars being used to help people in Mississippi, Louisiana, and the rest of the storm zone, but in a situation such as this such help is desperately needed--because these young people truly are "Your future." It would take fewer tax dollars to help those who need it now than it would to send youth who aren't helped through the justice system later.

Babe,
About the micro-fiche record in water/fire proof safes... it is kinda hard to use them if they were sucked out into the Gulf (along with concrete buildings, dump trucks, etc). There were plans, but unless you actually see Waveland/Bay for yourself you will never understand. It is hard to execute plans if there is no building left for a command post, no police cars, hell--there was only one working city car left after the storm and it broke a few days later. Really, what are they gonna do to them now, take their house away? Katrina already did that. The city is literally a clean slate, and we will rebuild from scratch. That is what a community does. Don't worry, though, most of the money is ours. We pay local, state, and federal taxes... your federal money is goung to rebuild Nagin's "Chocolate city." Eat up.

Irene--Please do not blame what you call "Nagin's 'Chocolate City'" for the fact that even after you've paid local state, and federal taxes, more federal money isn't being spent on rebuilding Waveland, Bay St. Louis, and other Mississippi communities.

New Orleans--even though her people have also paid local, state, and federal taxes--hasn't been getting the amount of money she needs to rebuild, either. She is cash-strapped, and as with communities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, much work remains to be done to get infrastructure and city services up and running so New Orleans can be a livable city. So blaming her for the fact that not enough federal money is going to Mississippi is unfair.

So where is your federal money going? Not only is it being donated to places such as Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, etc., it's being spent at the astounding rate of $2 billion A WEEK in Iraq.

It's also going for wasteful projects such as a planned fence along the southern border to keep undocumented immigrants out, which won't work. Any Mexican (or anybody else determined to get into the US without the required documents) will simply find a way over, under or around such a fence.

Good luck rebuilding from scratch--you definitely are going to need it. It's great to work together and have volunteers come down and help, but that won't do it all. You have to ask for federal help--in a country where money is being squandered overseas and on hare-brained schemes such as the border fence, you have the right as a tax payer to demand that federal dollars be used in your community. Such help should not be considered a handout, but the HAND UP your town needs to really get going. And like you said, most of the money is yours.

ouch!....bye ya'll.

I guess this would fall under the category of justice--Is there currently much of a problem in Bay St. Louis and Waveland with fraudulent contractors who prey on people desperate to repair and rebuild their properties? If so, how are the Hancock County authorities dealing with it?

I just ran across an Associated Press article datelined Gulfport, which says it's difficult to find an honest, readily-available contractor on the Gulf Coast. So con artists have been filling the void.

The article cites a Long Beach woman who says the first contractor she paid $20,000 to to fix her roof "caused more damage than the storm." And an elderly couple in Pass Christian paid over $30,000 to have a new home built, only to have the workers skip out when there was still over $10,000 worth of work left undone.

To all who have been trying to rebuild--has this happened to you or to anyone you know?

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