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Alabama Town Thankful for Santa Monica’s Help

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

December 13 -- When semi trucks hauling a fleet of clean-up vehicles loaned from Santa Monica pulled into the storm-ravaged Alabama town of Bayou La Batre last month, grateful town officials had to choke back the tears.

"I wish you folks could have been here to see the look on people's faces," said Tommy Reynoso, building inspector for the fishing town of 2,500, which was leveled in the wake of Hurrican Katrina.

"People had tears in their eyes,” he said. “It was a blessing that came from the other side of the continent, like a family we didn't even know we had."

Now a sister city to Santa Monica, Bayou La Batre was adopted in late September under a U.S. Conference of Mayors and Conference of Black Mayors initiative to pair cities up with gulf coast towns battered by a slew of deadly storms.

"We were basically hit by four storms, with one of them (Katrina) more powerful than anything we'd seen in a hundred years," Reynoso said in a disinct Alabama drawl. "They basically just wiped up out."

The 18 city vehicles and equipment loaned by Santa Monica -- including pick-ups, cranes, utility vehicles, street sweepers, a skip loader, a dump truck, a riding lawn mower and six chain saws -- makes up 100 percent of the town's clean-up fleet, and is a critical component on their road to recovery, said Reynoso.

"We've cleared about 1.2 million cubic pounds of debris, and we're just getting started," said Reynoso, who averages 12-hour workdays now and says he's just exhausted.

And it’s more than just clearing the more than 1,000 houses and other debris strewn about from their own town's destruction. The wreckage of about 250 homes on the popular vacaction spot, Dolphin Island, 15 miles away, ended up on Bayou La Batre's streets as well.

"Dolphine Island was hit and there's not much left," said Reynoso. "All the stuff came and washed up over here, and we were wondering where all this came from."

Boats once used to catch fish, oysters and shrimp -- the backbone of the residents incomes -- are stranded, splintered and wrecked, like the town's economy and tax base, said Reynoso, who attended the City's annual budget overview Thursday.

"We'll be lucky to have $15,000 left over at the end of the year," he said, a sharp decline from the usual $2.5 million budgeted.

Much of the money is going towards clean up, he said, and Santa Monica's contribution came in a desperate hour.

"We were afraid we were going to have to bite the bullet and purchase the equipment ourselves," said Reynoso.

Santa Monica's contribution also seems to be taking up the slack from federal and state emergency response. While Reynoso said government assistance has provided trailors to live and food to eat, there are still problems.

The Federal Emergency Managment Agency (FEMA) -- which was highly criticized in the press and at congressional hearings for being unprepared in the immediate aftermathe of the storm to help -- was going to charge people up to $60,000 to pull boats stranded on islets back into deep water.

"That's something they did for free in Louisiana and Mississippi, but not here," said Reynoso.

In fact, it was Bayou La Batre's own mayor, police chief and other city officials who responded quickly to ensure that the town didn't lose a single life to the storms.

"We all hunkered down until the storm passed and then went out in boats and did some rescues ourselves," said Reynoso, who estimated they helped up to 30 people escape fast-rising flood waters.

Days after Thanksgiving, Reynoso said he had a message from Bayou La Batre's residents to Santa Monica.

"Words cannot repay what Santa Monica did for our little town,” he said. “You folks came from the other side of the continent to come help us, and one of our employees said it best: this is what family is all about. Thank you and god bless."

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