Although it's been more than 18 months since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast, law enforcement agencies in devastated areas still struggle to get back on their feet. Last month, Bill Berry, executive director of the 5.11 Challenge, and I traveled back down to Louisiana to visit three agencies that were struck by Hurricane Rita. 5.11 Tactical had previously led an extensive effort to re-equip agencies after Katrina, actions that earned the company the 2006 Law Officer Gold Badge of Service Award. For agencies in western Louisiana, however, Hurricane Rita was every bit as damaging and little attention or help had come their way. So, when Berry told me he was headed back down to share some equipment donated by the winners of the 2006 5.11 Challenge, I asked him if I could help out and bring down some additional equipment. He readily agreed.
We arrived in Lafayette, La., on March 28, a beautiful Wednesday afternoon. Bill had hit the ground before I did, and, working with local 5.11 representative Darrell Morrow and Tim Heinzen, the owner of Barney s Police and Hunting Supplies, he d already packaged a couple-hundred giveaway sets. Early the following morning, we left with three target agencies in our sights: the Sheriffs Departments of Calcasieu and Cameron Parishes, and the Lake Charles Police Department. We d learned these agencies were most in need of a little encouragement.
I could fill multiple pages sharing with you how courageous, inspiring and hospitable the people of this area are, but I don t have that much room, so I'll tell you about one particularly memorable experience. Cameron Parish was our first stop. As we got out of our trucks, we heard the sound of bulldozers working to rebuild the area in front of the courthouse. We went inside and met with Sheriff Theos Duon, who told us the people of Cameron Parish had fully evacuated before Rita hit and no lives had been lost. But a 15' tidal surge ravaged the sea-level town and destroyed most of the homes. Perhaps the most disturbing result was the flooding of 38 cemeteries that caused more than 300 caskets to float out of the ground and scatter their decomposed contents over several hundred square miles of marshes and woods full of snakes and alligators. This led to one of the most extensive recovery efforts ever and challenged the resources of the Sheriff's Department and local funeral homes for nearly a year after the hurricane.
Duon turned us over to Deputy David Hebert, a man whose appearance and demeanor can be deceiving. He s very thin and a little on the short side. Admittedly shy and sporting an ever-present toothpick in his mouth, Hebert would be easy to miss. But when he was asked what he d been through as a result of Rita, his face took on a noticeably solemn look. He spoke with deep emotion about the loss of his home, the displacement of his family and the awareness that many families in the area had forever been separated because of the hurricane. But Hebert also demonstrated a determination and can-do attitude worthy of the finest law enforcement officer. When you go into an area like this for a day or two, it's easy to forget that the people who live there, especially those in public safety, have been dealing with the aftermath for more than a year, all while trying to rebuild their own shattered lives. I must admit I wouldn t even know where to begin. They have my greatest respect and admiration.
We had similar experiences at the other two agencies and found officers going about their jobs and handling calls in a way that reminded me almost anything can become routine if experienced frequently enough over a long period. But despite their positive attitude, these officers have a long way to go. Please remember them and their experiences next time you feel a little overextended. It helps put things in perspective.
Special thanks to 5.11 Tactical for the partnership and to other companies who donated equipment to the effort.
Dale Stockton is the editor of Law Officer.