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Sister Cities for when the chips are down

7 mins read

By Bill Rauch

Last week was our wake-up call that the 2018 hurricane season will be an active one, so here’s a little institutional knowledge from a dozen or so years ago.

In the days after Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans in August 2005, the images of flooding and destruction were all over the television. Everyone was talking about it. Everyone was affected. People would come up to me on Bay Street and say “Mayor, it’s awful. What can we do?”

I didn’t really know.

But after the 20th person said the same thing I got an idea: I’d call the Mississippi Municipal Association and ask whoever picked up the phone if there were any towns like Beaufort — “shrimpers and soldiers” — that needed our help. The guy at the other end of the line said, “Well we haven’t heard anything from them, but from the news reports it looks like Long Beach needs a lot of help. There’s a new mayor there, Billy Skellie. Here’s his number.”

Long Beach, Miss., is a town of about 15,000 along the Gulf Coast about 50 miles as the crow flies east of New Orleans.

I called Mayor Skellie’s number several times that day and it just rang and rang. But then Capt. Perry Hall stopped by my office to say he was going down to New Orleans to help out. I said to him, “On your way through Mississippi please stop by Long Beach and see if you can find the mayor there, Billy Skellie, and while you’re standing there with him call me. I want to talk to him.”

Well, the next day the phone rang and it was Perry Hall standing with Billy Skellie. I said, “Mayor, we want to help. What do you need?”

He said, “We badly need gas. When the feds came in here they commandeered all the gas at the convenience stores and there are a bunch of people here who want to leave because their houses are all torn up and there’s no water or sewer, but they’ve got no gas for their cars. And then we need guys with chainsaws, as many as you can send.”

Beaufort responded gloriously and two days later Long Beach had two gasoline tankers pulled up in front of their main fire station. The next weekend 150 of our finest were camped out in the side yard of the fire station sharpening their chainsaw blades. The Marines loaned us a mess tent. Steve Brown generously brought the groceries and did the cooking. Fire Chief Wendell Wilburn with his brass buttons shined gave us the look of officialness. We went to work clearing Long Beach’s streets and getting to know its people, who graciously came out to cheer us on with bottles of water and kind words.

Shortly after the Chainsaw Brigade — as they came to call themselves — returned from Long Beach, a delegation from Leesburg, Fla. (an historic town of about 15,000 located just north of Orlando) visited Beaufort to look over our Main Street program. In the course of their visit a lunch was arranged at which I was seated between Leesburg’s mayor and city manager. During the lunch the subject turned to hurricanes and I recounted to them the mutually beneficial experience Beaufort had in Long Beach.

The gas and the chainsaws were just the beginning. Beaufort’s churches ended up “adopting” their Long Beach counterparts, our Boys and Girls Club adopted their Boys and Girls Club, the Baptist Church of Beaufort provided Christmas presents for all the kids in Long Beach, and more.

Right there on the spot, Leesburg’s city manager said Leesburg would like to have a similar arrangement with Beaufort wherein if one was hit, the other would at their earliest convenience bring a tent city of volunteers over to help clean up.

We shook on it, and the next autumn as Beaufort was evacuating for Hurricane Ernesto I got a call from the Leesburg city manager saying he was having a truck loaded with drinking water, and if Ernesto turned out badly for us to please be in touch with him about what else we needed.  A couple of hours later I got a similar call from Long Beach expressing their willingness to reciprocate our earlier kindnesses.

Luckily for us Ernesto went north and I didn’t have to call either town, but knowing they were standing by to help was to say the least reassuring.

CNN and Fox will be going to Charleston or Savannah, or Orlando, or New Orleans. The FEMA brass will follow them. And it will be the Beauforts, the Blufftons, the Port Royals, the Hilton Heads, and the Leesburgs and Long Beaches that get left to fend for themselves.

We best stick together.

Mayor and council, you have my permission to clip this story and send it to the current mayors and councils of Long Beach and Leesburg.

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.

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