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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. – Fourteen months ago, Mayor Tommy Longo had to swim for his life in Hurricane Katrina’s roiling waters.

Now, after struggling for more than a year to keep his city afloat, he's hoping to avoid becoming the first mayor in the hurricane zone swept out of office in the wake of the storm.

Two Democratic opponents are running hard to unseat him in Tuesday’s primary. If he wins that race outright, which will take a majority of the vote, or squeaks into a runoff, he’ll have to face the winner of the Republican primary and an independent candidate in the city’s general election in December. It all adds up to the toughest challenge he’s faced in his 12 years in elective office in Waveland, eight of them as mayor.

“It scares me to death,” Longo admits, pacing the floor of the mobile home that now serves as his office in the city’s temporary government complex.

Devastation from Katrina was near total in Waveland, which had a population of 6,674 before the storm. The storm’s relentless winds and surging waters swept across the Gulfside community and took out the entire downtown business area, City Hall and other government facilities. It damaged and washed away thousands of homes, miles of streets, and, in many areas of town, virtually all utility lines.

Since then, the chief knock on the 48-year-old Longo from both Democratic and Republican foes is that he has not been visible and accessible enough to voters nor open enough about plans for rebuilding the city. In Waveland’s form of government the mayor is both the top elected and administrative official.

Weekly status reports promised

“The first thing I would do would be to start informing the city on a weekly basis as to the status of funding and the recovery and why things are not moving as quickly as we would like to see,” says Joan Coleman, 63, an accountant who ran unsuccessfully against Longo four years ago. Since the storm, Coleman has founded the Waveland Citizens Fund to provide grants to help homeowners rebuild. She also started and manages the Saturday morning Waveland Market for local farmers and artisans in a pair of Quonset huts in the heart of town.

“I’m not a negative politician,” she adds, refusing to criticize Longo by name, but “I feel the public really needs an honest, open administration and that’s all I’ll say about that.”

The third Democrat in the race is former Waveland Alderman Milton Bernard, 65, who will be retiring from his job with CSX railroad next month. Bernard is more willing to take Longo to task, saying “he hasn’t spoke to people face to face and eye to eye. It seems like he spends more time flying around the country to promote himself.”

One of Bernard’s key campaign promises is that he’ll use his accounting background to analyze the city’s finances and translate them into layman’s terms. He vows to make much more information available about meeting times, agendas and budget issues. “Waveland and Waveland voters deserve the best leadership they can get,” he says.

Echoing Coleman and Bernard’s comments is William “Wild Bill” Laprime, 67, a retired electrician who is running as a Republican in his second bid for the mayor’s job. “I ain’t seen the mayor in three weeks and now this week I’ve seen him 20 times. You need to get out every day and meet the people,” says Laprime, who is nearly done rebuilding his home a few blocks from the beach.

Laprime believes the pace of recovery has been too slow, partly because Longo has not been active in seeking help from other members of the community. In the GOP primary, he is running against businessman Craig Cameron.

'We weren't always told the truth'

Also in the race is Alderman Santo Saucier, a construction superintendent, who is running as an independent. Saucier says he was drafted to run by citizens who are worried, as he is, about the city’s future. “The most important thing is rebuilding our city,” he says, but he also hopes for more transparency at City Hall.

“As citizens and city officials, we weren’t always told the truth,” Saucier says. “Tommy’s a good guy but he just beats around the bush.”

Longo says he is the victim of “misinformation” and that he’s very proud of the way he has led the city’s rebuilding efforts, securing millions in grant money, overseeing a complete revamp of the utilities system and doing all he can to attract and preserve retail business in a city where sales tax provides the bulk of government revenue. He says he has done this without much support from the aldermen, all four of whom also are up for election.

As to openness and accessibility, he says he began holding weekly town meetings before the storm began but he saw none of his critics there. “The fact of the matter is that Waveland is more open and honest and there’s more information than there is in most cities,” Longo says.

There have been no candidate forums in the race, so campaigning has been mostly a matter of ads in the local newspaper, signs and door-belling. A local citizens group, Coastal Community Watch, plans to give the primary winners space on a special Web site to present their views.

A cordial contest

The race has remained fairly cordial, befitting a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone else. Bernard, for example, lives on a street named for Longo’s father, former Mayor John Longo Jr., who steered Waveland through the aftermath of Hurricane Camille.

“If I win, he’s going to still be my friend,” Laprime says of Longo. “If he wins, I’m still going to be his friend and if he needs my help, I’m going to help him.”

If Longo loses, he’s unsure about his own future. Prior to becoming mayor, he was in the mental health field. “I got five children,” he says. “I’ll find a job.”

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5 COMMENTS

When asked about the forbidden fruit, Adam blamed GOD for giving him the woman, Eve. My point? People want to find someone to blame for their problems, but are quick to take credit for their successes. I experienced both Katrina and Camille. When nature stirs up a 25-40 foot wall of water and 150MPH+ winds, it's NOBODY'S fault!! It just happens. But there's one thing that Katrina did really well; it REVEALED the character, both good and bad, of countless thousands.

I came to help those in need, our company in Northern Mississippi donated tanks, plumbing and parts for showers. We set them up at the Fred's store lot. Its a crying shame, so many people can point their finger at the elected officals and blame them for their misery. People, People, who doe you think the government is???? we are the government!!! quit blaming somebody else for your troubles, back your current mayor! the others that oppose him are simply opportunists, carpet baggers who suck the life out of those less fortunate. If you supported him before the storm, then why not now? If he doesn't visit each and every home, then so what? The mayor of Olive Branch, MS. is yet to visit my door step, but he continues to do the right thing for our community. I continue to vote for someone who cares, not someone who visits my home and shakes my hand. Those are called carpet baggers they always want something they can't give.

You do not know this man. If you did you would not hope he gets elected. In fact you would hope he wouldn't not remain in the county.

Per Robert Lightsey's remark that Katrina "...REVEALED the character, both good and bad, of countless thousands..."

While I won't speak regarding Mayor Longo per se because, not living in Waveland or the area, I'm not well-enough informed about how he's been running the community, I can speak about the national election results.

I strongly hope that with 26 House seats being gained by Democrats and the strong possibility of the Democrats gaining the Senate, they have the power to force a more-pro-active policy on the part of the Bush Administration regarding Katrina recovery. The Bush Administration has, to put it simply not done enough, from the bungled response after Katrina happened to the fact that currently the Bush Administration seems to have washed its hands of the affected areas of Mississippi and Louisiana. People and communities there have been getting no attention and of course, no help, from the Administration at all--and the Republican Congress has rubber-stamped this inaction.

President Bush's priorities have been seriously misplaced. He should be helping people rebuild at home in the storm zone--not giving $230 million to Lebanon to help people there rebuild, for example. Not to mention $2 billion PER WEEK in Iraq. This does not speak well for the President's character. I hope the Democrats in Congress have the gumption to set him straight.

I don't live in Waveland but across the bay in Pass Christian. Mayor Longo seems like a very caring, decent man. The one thing that I will always remember him for is his concern for the animals and he worked with the Friends of the Animal Shelter in Waveland to bring recognition to their needs. For those that would like to check on this issue see mesbeth.com/animals.html. The very best of luck to Mayor Longo in getting help for his wonderful little town.

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