New England Chapter visits the South

Larry Bombara
Superintendent of Public Works
Town of Uxbridge, Massachusetts
2007 Top Ten Public Works Leader of the Year

It all became clear when I read my fortune cookie while at lunch with our work crew on Tuesday. "You come to teach and you will be taught." But let's back up.

The plan
A call was made to Don Sappington, the President of the APWA Mississippi Chapter, to see if he had any contacts for communities that might need public works support and he came through without hesitation. Our plan was to put together a team of volunteers (nine in all) that could assist in the backlog of recovery tasks for a week in the spring after our winter chores and prior to our construction season. Contact was made with the Bay St. Louis (BSL) Department of Public Works and things were put into motion. We knew the work would be similar to our tasks in New England, but what we weren't prepared for was the hospitality and influences of the South. Being called Mr. Larry, Mr. Golf Man, Mr. Old Man and a host of other nicknames for our crew would take some getting used to.

Priorities were established including filling in for shorthanded crews installing utilities, refurbishing and relocating the public works facility into a newly-acquired garage vacated by the electric company, prepping and placing of hot mix into existing utility trenches and potholes, and revitalizing athletic facilities to accommodate the spring baseball season.

Logistics
It was Saturday at 5:00 a.m. when most of us were getting on the road heading to the airports during the St. Patrick's Day snowstorm in New England. Most of us (meaning not all of us) were going to make the planned trip at the scheduled time. Flights were canceled from Hartford, Connecticut to Gulfport, Mississippi for Bob Jahn (Cromwell, Conn., DPW) and Jeff Gargano (Cheshire, Conn., DPW). Lee Peck (Earth Tech, Middleboro, Mass.) and Carolyn Brennan (Carver, Mass.) wouldn't have a problem driving from their winter stay in Florida and Gordon Daring (VHB, Manchester, Conn.) was already in New Orleans two days earlier. Jeanne and I were driving 50 miles to Boston and Bobby Giers (Boston, Mass., PWD) and Tim Walsh (Westwood, Mass., DPW) were on a bus headed to Boston for their flight.

Our two-hour delay in Boston worked out perfectly to catch the 21/2-hour delayed flight from NY LaGuardia to New Orleans. Who cared if the luggage didn't follow at this point? Arriving only a few hours late with only one bag missing was a miracle.

It wasn't so lucky for the Connecticut contingent. Jeff went back to plowing and wouldn't arrive until Monday and Bob J. was actually on another flight Monday, only to be removed from his seat on his connecting flight in Atlanta after the airline admitted overbooking and it was his seat that needed to be vacated. He would arrive Tuesday.

We had made arrangements for sleeping quarters through a friend of a friend who had a summer house in neighboring Waveland that had lost only the roof with no water damage. We were able to fit nine into a four-bedroom house with little room to spare. Supplies were purchased for breakfasts including life's essentials with the plan of eating lunches on the job with BSL employees (remember the Tuesday fortune cookie), and we remained flexible by preparing dinners day by day.

It all begins
The owner of our sleeping quarters, Ms. Carolyn from New Orleans, was helping coordinate other volunteer groups rebuilding that city. Rather than waste Sunday checking out Waveland and BSL sites, we headed to New Orleans to lend a hand.

The original work assignment was sheetrocking, but due to permitting problems, tasks shifted to fence repairs, yard cleanup and insulation installation. We all felt it would be a great start to attend their church service prior to our getting our hands dirty, and what a great start it was. Not only did Pastor Gary give us a great southern welcome by bringing us up to the altar for a round of appreciation applause, but he also had the children's choir, made up of five- and six-year-olds, give us a hip-hip-hooray for our volunteer efforts. By the end of the day, the muscles that hadn't been used in years began showing signs of exhaustion—but what a great feeling. Later that evening, Ms. Carolyn, husband Ronnie (a retired DPW employee) and friend Ed accompanied us on a tour of Jefferson Parish and the levee responsible for so much of the flooding. Only then did the enormity of the storm and the resulting total destruction of lives, tangibles, dreams, traditions, families and neighborhoods sink in.

Bay St. Louis—also known as "A Place Apart"
Bay St. Louis was a Gulf Coast tourist city of approximately six square miles and 8,500 residents prior to Katrina. Most of the tax base was lost along with infrastructure, businesses, homes and permanent residents. At its highest elevation of only 25 feet above sea level, one can only imagine how a 35-foot tidal surge and winds over 140 mph can take a toll on a community. Investigations are now being conducted into the true wind gusts as a result of evidence of bark pealing which usually indicates much higher winds in the range of 160-180 mph. Prior to the storm, the DPW employed 39 employees covering all aspects of public works including roads, water, wastewater, gas, storm drainage, building maintenance and recreational facilities. Only nine were remaining to begin the massive task of rebuilding their community and their lives. Although there may be a growing number of employees today, the recent annexing of substantial acreage to the city will only add to the burden the department already faces. The DPW is now at a juncture of relocating the DPW to newer facilities and reorganizing inventory and equipment while trying to continue the rebuilding efforts of the community, all the while trying to put the pieces of their own lives back together again. Director Ron Vanney and his administrative staff of Buddy, Peggy and our contact, Ms. Lawren, handle it all with Mr. Kim, a/k/a "Pots," taking on the operations side of the business.

Some of the New England crew preparing a utility trench for final asphalt. Left to right: Mr. John (BSL), Lee Peck on pick, Jeff Gargano on shovel and Mr. Jamie (BSL) in backhoe.

The people and tasks
Jeanne and Carolyn became the primary Michelangelos of the workforce splashing, ever so neatly, 30-plus gallons of paint in soon-to-be new DPW office space, storage rooms, administrative and athletic buildings working under the watchful eye of Mr. Jimmy. Bobby G. began his BSL career painting and was soon elevated to chief inventory relocator and organizer for water and sewer supplies assisting Mr. Wayne. Bob J. and Gordon were known as the "jack of all tradesmen" painting, relocating supplies, and shaping up the athletic fields with the assistance of Messrs. Chuck, Jerome and Wayne.

Tim (Mr. Old Man) held a master's degree in water and sewer operations with his BSL crew of Mr. Adam and operator Mr. Jerry repairing numerous leaks and installing sewer taps for new construction. Now that leaves the rest of us. Mr. Golf Man (Lee), Mr. Boss Man (yours truly), and Mr. Worker (Jeff) assisted with prepping and placing over 30 tons of hot mix for utility restoration and pothole repairs with our crew of operator Mr. Jamie, utility worker Mr. John, and truck driver Mr. Tom.

A typical home awaiting reconstruction showing the first floor blown/washed away and leaning steel columns.

The experience
Now comes the hard part. How do you write about something that has changed people's lives forever and changed your own life as well? How can we explain the sorrow that was felt while working alongside John, telling of his Uncle Joe's courage saving victims with his boat only to find his body in a tree two days later? How does one go about listening to Jamie tell the story of rescuers cutting off the roof of Ms. Kim's house to save her, only to find her body in a chair clutching the Bible without feeling his grief? Or Tom, who after pulling two years of duty overseas, now having to deal with this battlefield? Or Ms. Anita, recording a 90-degree temperature of the ocean and immediately realizing she has but only minutes to save herself? Or speaking to Ashton, riding out the storm in his house inside an armoire with his pet, only to find his house completely demolished but his life spared, or wading through waist-deep water with friends' and relatives' bodies floating by? The stories they have allowed us to share with them are beyond comprehension for most, unless you have seen for yourself the remains of "A Place Apart."

And yet there is hope that "A Place Apart" will return. You can see it in their faces, in their speech, in their actions, in their strong exteriors covering their pain, and most of all, in the community spirit. The hope that this will never happen again, the hope that the pain of loss will someday diminish, the hope that families will be able to begin new traditions to replace those that were lost forever. Yes, we all came home with a great feeling of accomplishment and a feeling that we could and should do more, but most of all, a feeling that we had learned something. We were all taught a great lesson in humanity, in humbling gratitude, and in dealing with people who have hope, pride and spirit written all over them in spite of their misfortune.

1st Baptist Church in downtown BSL with entire church proper gone and offices/meeting rooms remaining, not deterring their spirit.

A good example: One evening, driving by what appeared to be an empty FEMA trailer where a house once stood and now waiting to be rebuilt, we noticed water leaking from within. A neighbor noticed us scurrying around the site and questioned our activities. We explained we were volunteers looking for the water shutoff. Relieved, she explained that the owner, Mr. Connie, was having tests at the local hospital and would be "home" later that evening and she would inform him of our shutting off the water. Mr. Connie is 94 years old! Now you understand the feeling of hope and spirit.

And let's not forget the good times with our work crews. Learning to eat pickled pig lips (no, that's not a typo). Grandma's red beans and rice for a morning snack, fried alligator appetizers with a side of turtle soup, and not learning soon enough which parts of crawfish should be eaten and which should not. And don't forget the fireside chats with Mr. Trivia Danny. The hugs, the tears, the camaraderie and especially the calls from our new friends to see if we all returned to New England safely and why we didn't show for work the following Monday!

To put it all into perspective: "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away." - Anonymous

We all left BSL breathless.

What can you do?
Why not look at a map of the Gulf Coast, pick a community, and make a call to the DPW. Don't expect to speak to the Director. Their workload does not allow time, believe me. Make a contact with clerical and inform them that you and a small group (5-10 is ideal) would like to assist. Unless there is a specific task to complete, too large a group can sometimes be more burdensome. The ideal situation is for a lead person to arrive a few days early and work with staff to help coordinate work assignments and scheduling and then remain with the group for the duration. A friendly reminder: Don't think you're going to change the way things are done because you do things differently in your community. Remember, you're there to assist. However, as the week winds down, don't be surprised to find your crew members picking up a few new ideas and tricks of the trade from you and you from them as well. We certainly did. "You come to teach and you will be taught."

For the New England Chapter:

Larry Bombara, Uxbridge DPW, MA 
Jeanne Bombara, Douglas, MA
Carolyn Brennan, Carver, MA
Gordon Daring, VHB, Manchester, CT
Jeff Gargano, Cheshire DPW, CT
Bob Giers, Boston PWD, MA
Robert Jahn, Cromwell DPW, CT
Lee Peck, Earth Tech, Middleboro, MA
Tim Walsh, Westwood DPW, MA

Larry Bombara can be reached at (508) 278-8616 or supt.dpw@uxbridge-ma.gov.

For those interested in additional pictures and writings, we found two great pictorial books on the disaster:

West Side Stories, e-mail vniolet@earthlink.net

Winds of Change, The Sea Coast Echo, P.O. Box 2009, Bay St. Louis, Miss. 39521