Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Christmas Story

From Janet

Twists of fate
Tuesday, December 19, 2006 BY ANNE LEVIN
Special to the Times

Andrea and Frank Bridges tried their best to ignore Christmas last year. For the first time in their marriage, the couple didn't put up a tree. There was no Christmas dinner; there were no gifts. The Bridges were staying in Nevada with family members, having been displaced a few months earlier from their Bay St. Louis, Miss., home by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.
"We were still in shock," says Andrea Bridges, curled up a few weeks ago on the sofa in the tidy home in Ewing where the couple, grateful to be on their own again, now live. "
And to some degree, we still are."
Celebrating Christmas remains low on the Bridges' priority list. But this year, they feel ready to at least acknowledge the holiday in small ways.
They will attend church and have Christmas dinner with friends. They will give gifts on Christmas morning to their two adored pugs, Misha and Pierre.
But they won't put up a tree. "As far as Christmas goes, we have no Christmas," says Andrea Bridges, "but what you have to understand is that we've been sort of having Christmas for a few months, since we moved into this house and got a roof over our heads. "People have been so amazing to us. This has been the most humbling experience. People are so generous and, more than that, they are so loving."
The people she refers to are those she has met through her apprenticeship at the Anthony Rabara Studio for Pilates in Princeton, where she has been studying for certification as a full Pilates instructor since last fall.
Rabara, especially, and his partner Donald Brokate have been "angels," says Bridges, hosting her in their Trenton home and helping her and Frank find the house they are renting today. The Bridges will have Christmas dinner next week at Rabara's and Brokate's and will attend church services for the holiday with them.
Andrea Bridges, 49, is a former ballet dancer who hails from New Orleans. Her husband, Frank, 48, from Ocean Springs, Miss., is a graphic designer and percussionist. Andrea's two grown daughters live in Alabama. The couple met on a blind date 11 years ago and were married soon after. Living in the quaint, seaside town of Bay St. Louis in a house they were renting and about to buy, the Bridges were content. Andrea Bridges had been working as a nail technician for a few years after she stopped dancing, but was thinking about getting back into a field that would make use of her dance experience. She had heard a lot about the Pilates method of physical conditioning a favorite of many dancers -- and was anxious to investigate it as a next step in her career. On the night of Aug. 28, 2005, Frank Bridges was playing a gig in Bay St. Louis when the news came through that the impending storm had been bumped up from a Category 3 to a frightening Category 5 hurricane. Andrea Bridges called him and told him to get home right away. Meanwhile, she went to check on Miss Wilma, their 92-year-old neighbor who had just gotten out of thehospital where she had been treated for an injured hip.
"She refused to leave," says Andrea Bridges. "We wanted to go to a safeplace inland and take her with us, but she absolutely refused to go. So wedecided we had to stay. We couldn't just leave her there all alone."
The Bridges got Miss Wilma, Misha and Pierre into the nearby one-story home of a neighbor who had also elected to stay. They holed up together to wait out the storm. Living on the Gulf Coast, they were used to fierce weather.
But Katrina -- which caused $81 billion in damages and was one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States -- was something none of them had ever experienced.
"We prepared all the hurricane supplies they tell you to get, which for some reason I had gotten together a few days before," says Andrea Bridges. "When it was time to get into a room with no windows, we all huddled into this little foyer. Before long, the water was making itself known. We started loading up the attic with supplies because we figured we'd be up there and maybe out on the roof.
"We got some Styrofoam pieces to put the puppies on. We tied a rope around all of us, because we figured if they find one of us they'll find all ofus." During all of this frantic activity, Andrea Bridges had a moment of realization. "I stopped for a moment and thought, 'This is it. This could really be the end.' But then right away," she says, "I thought, 'No, we're going to survive this.'
We just kicked into gear and we're still in gear, with as much force as a year and a half ago."
As it turned out, the water rushing into the house started receding before it became necessary to climb into the attic. The group began trying to help push the water back out. When they stepped outside the next morning and made their way to their own house, the Bridges found themselves sur ounded by15-foot walls of debris. Frank Bridges, who had driven around townphoto graphing buildings and streets before the storm hit, was stunned to find an almost completely changed landscape.
"We didn't recognize half the places we'd gone to every day," he says. "It looked like Beirut. Houses were cut in half, like doll houses, with the furniture still in them. Asphalt was crumbled up. A big metal food-warmer from a nearby restaurant had floated down and washed up right next to ou rhouse."
It was almost impossible to tell who had survived the storm and who had not.
People were dazed. Historic houses had been washed away. The Bridges' house, though standing, was ruined. A tree had fallen through the roof. There was no electricity, no water.
"It was very hot. The puppies were suffering. I stayed up all night putting batteries into my fans to blow on them and try and keep them cool. We slept on lawn chairs and were happy to have them," Andrea Bridges says.
"You'reso filthy. There was nothing, no civilization. It was such a feeling of helplessness. We were just trying to survive till the government came in to help us. And they never came."
The people who did show up to help were from church groups of many denominations.
"When the government was still sitting there twiddling their thumbs, these church groups were really helping us out," she says. Her husband managed to get a generator going, which eased things a bit.
Nobody's cell phone was getting a signal, but after a few days he noticed a girl standing on a big shard of pavement sticking up in the middle of the main street, talking on her phone.
"You could see she had gotten a signal,"he says. "So people started lining up to stand in that one spot." He got through to his brother, who lives in Red Bank, and was relieved to hear from him.
"We had been on the missing list," he says. "My nephew drove down to get us. It took him five hours to drive here from Mobile (Ala.), a trip that usually takes an hour. "He brought us water, ice and other things. So that's how we got out. We left with him."
The Bridges spent the next several months with relatives in Mississippi and Nevada as well as New Jersey. After a few weeks, Andrea Bridges was able to get to a computer. In between the endless attempts to deal with insurance agencies, which still continues, she began researching the Pilates method.
She spent many sleepless nights combing through the Web sites for training programs, trying to weed out the ones that weren't the real thing. One day, Rabara's site popped up on her screen. "I looked at this picture of Anthony and I just knew, without even reading what it said," she recalls.
"It was something about his face."
After an unsuccessful stint with a training program in California, Bridges decided to follow her instincts. She phoned Rabara and told him she wanted to train with him, and he invited her to come to his studio. For the next eight months, she shuttled between his Hiltonia home and her relatives in Red Bank, learning from Rabara and taking the "True Pilates" certification course in New York. The course normally takes two years; Bridges is trying to finish it in eight months.
"Everything happens for a reason," says Rabara, who didn't know about the Bridges' ordeal until Andrea apprenticed with him for two weeks.
"She didn't tell me about Katrina right away. I had accepted her as an apprentice because I knew right away that she was a very fast study. She seemed well grounded and she is a lovely individual.
"It was not out of any kind of pity that I took her on and asked her to stay at our house. It was because I could see that she was the type of hardworker and generous individual that fits into the ideals of our studio and allows us to maintain the Pilates tradition."
Andrea Bridges reaches for the tissue box on her ottoman as she talks about the job that Rabara has given her and the help he and Brokate gave her in finding a home. Nearly every piece of furniture in the house was given to them, by Rabara and Brokate and other new friends as well. Still sparsely furnished, it is a cheerful house, despite the ordeal its inhabitants have been through.
"I still don't sleep," says Andrea Bridges, "and the dogs have never been the same. They want both of us in the same room at the same time. But though we don't dream, though the dreams are gone, we look at today. We get excited about little things like paper goods. Just to have a roof over our heads, our own place we just sit and cry and feel the love."

Labels: , , , ,

Fire Dept Shake Up

Favre explores Bay fire dept. controversies
Jan 10, 2007, 09:07

Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre is holding one-on-one interviews with everybody in the Fire Department, launching an investigation he said is largely based on concerns revealed in a recent Sea Coast Echo story. And when he's done with the Fire Department, Favre said he plans on top-to-bottom interviews throughout all the other city departments as well.The Fire Department interviews come in the wake of a story describing turmoil among personnel there that has left the department highly demoralized.
The controversy swirls around promotions, demotions and reported threats of dismissals, in accounts gathered by the Echo from numerous sources. It also involves accusations that some in the department were kept on the payroll full time after Hurricane Katrina, but rarely showed up for work over a period of several months.
Fire Chief Bobby Gavagnie said any discontent in the department is a natural outcome of personnel shuffles to expand the department. He said he refuses to employ the "good ol' boy" system or mere longevity to promote within the ranks, but rather taps the most qualified personnel to elevate.
It is not clear at this point exactly what criteria is being used for promotions in the Bay Fire Department. Gavagnie suspended the department's official promotion process indefinitely, in a June 2004 memo recently obtained by the Echo.
Favre said he was aware of that action, and Gavagnie was within his rights to repeal the promotion process that was in the department's handbook. All department heads, he said, develop their own promotion policies and operating rules – but subject to the mayor's approval.
The June 14, 2004, memo, said Favre, was issued because fire fighters were upset over new rules and standards that had been imposed in the department at that time. As recently as December 2006, Gavagnie approved a reorganization proposal involving three firefighters, but he gave his deputy chief, Pam San Fillippo, full authority to amend it or implement it. The chief said he's following standard military-style command in such matters.
Even as the investigation is underway, Favre repeated his previous stand that no personnel changes will be in effect until he personally approves them. That includes three recent "promotions" to the rank of lieutenant which occurred last week, Favre said.
So far, no complaints, appeals of personnel actions, or requests for promotions have come to Favre's personal attention, he said Monday. Neither have there been any complaints filed through the city's Civil Service system, Favre said. But the mayor said he's hopeful that all the concerns will be aired with him this week, leading to a full understanding of what's going on inside the department. What happens next depends on "what comes out" in the interviews.He said he's promising total protection to the personnel, with "no retaliation" possible. "There never has been and never will be any retaliation."
He said he would deal quickly with "whatever" the situation that comes to light. Meanwhile, the internal discontent has escalated to the point that up to half the department's personnel were, this week, said to be ready to resign unless the internal problems are resolved.
Favre indicated a deep concern overt the situation on Monday, and his hope that the personnel will be candid with him.. The mayor also said he plans to hold such interviews in coming weeks within the other departments, hoping to produce a clear picture of the state of the city's personnel and any concerns that may need to be addressed within the municipal workforce.
"The key is just to sit down with these (employees), all the way through, from top to bottom and bottom to top, and see what their concerns are. Strictly one-on-one. Hopefully, all will feel free to talk."
There has been unrelated controversy in recent months concerning doings within the city's Building Inspection Department. In that matter, the chief building official resigned in the face of an uproar over his "moonlighting" for the county while on the city staff full time.
Questions concerning that department have been forwarded by City Council and the mayor to the Attorney General, State Auditor, State Ethics Commission and the state Real Estate Commission for investigation.

Bay F.D .employee shake-up under fire
Dec 22, 2006, 14:51
The Bay St. Louis Fire Department is ablaze with internal strife. The mayor said Thursday he's aware of the problems involved and is investigating the situation.
Sources tell the Sea Coast Echo that a series of developments within the department – dating from the wake of Katrina to as recently as last week – have created serious demoralization in the ranks of the department.
Mayor Eddie Favre said he's aware of most of the controversies mentioned in an interview for this story, and has an investigation underway to get to the root of the problems. He said the last thing the city wants to have happen is to lose experienced firefighters.Troubles within the Fire Department are the third significant departmental difficulty the administration is having to address.
The city has lost two of the top three high-level experienced police officers in recent months, but those resignations are attributed to better paying offers from state law enforcement agencies.
A fourth significant resignation is said to be pending, but its status is not clear. And the police chief has confirmed he's considering retirement, but said it's due to his age rather than the loss of some top officers.
Earlier this year, the city also saw the resignation of its chief building officer and some of that department's employees, in a swirl of controversy that quieted only after council agreed to ask for state investigations of the issues involved there.
The unrelated Fire Department controversy concerns promotions, demotions, threats of demotions, the fairness of disciplinary actions and a supposed breakdown in the general chain of command within the department.
There are also allegations from several sources that at least two personnel within the Fire Department showed up for work only sporadically for months in the wake of Katrina – but remained on the payroll as full time employees.
Meanwhile, Favre said none of the personnel promotion or demotion actions at issue have been finalized, because they have not crossed his desk, and there have been no formal protests filed through him or to the Civil Service System in place. There is a lot of verbal protesting otherwise, however. Some who were willing to confirm the internal doings of the department did so only by relaying their information through others, for fear of retaliatory actions.
Aside from the concerns inside the department, there is worry afloat that if the situation escalates and drives seasoned fire department personnel from the force, the city's fire insurance rating could be damaged.
The controversy swirls around not only who's getting promoted or demoted, but whether the city's own rules are being followed in that process.
Some say Fire Chief Bobby Gavagnie has offloaded too much responsibility, turning it over to his immediate subordinates. In a Dec. 7, 2007 memo obtained by the Echo, Gavagnie effectively gave Deputy Chief Pam San Fillippo a free hand to deal with several specific controversial personnel matters as she sees fit.
The chief said he accepted the pertinent recommendations of Fillippo and Assistant Chief Louie Prendergast, made in November, with no changes.
But later in the memo, he also told Fillippo: "Should you wish to amend the proposal in any way, or implement it as submitted, you have my full support." Two promotions to the status of lieutenant recently were awarded by Fillippo, with a salary boost of some $5,000 each, passing over more seasoned firemen who thought they were in line for the jobs.
Neither of those who were promoted had fulfilled the city's traditional three-year probationary period, sources say.
Meanwhile, the fire fighters have witnessed a "couple of very unfounded demotions," according to one source. The uproar comes as the department is realigning internally to expand services to the newly annexed area. Now with a staffing level of 21, the department will be growing in upper- and lower-level positions, to fully staff shifts in the new and old city departments. Who gets promoted, and what criteria is being followed, is part of the controversy. In addition, some firemen who are seasoned veterans of the force reportedly have been threatened with demotion, outright dismissal, or probationary status. "We all fear for our jobs," said one in the middle of the mess. "But we've got to stop this. It's getting out of hand."
Another said the strife is "ripping us apart." Some say minor infractions of general protocol have been blown out of proportion for certain personnel, while similar or worse infractions by others have been totally ignored or forgiven.
Favre said some of the internal shift changes to accommodate creating another station in the newly annexed area is causing regrettable but necessary upset among firefighters.He said the departments' employees are like a "family" that does not give in easily to splits. He said there will need to be new lieutenant positions created, but not new captain slots to staff the new station.
"This has caused some concerns and I can understand that...The whole department is a family."
Favre said that has caused some – but not all – of the morale dip in the department.
"We are looking into it," the mayor said of the concerns outlined to him by the Echo.
"Once we find out what the concerns are, we will address them"
Favre literally lived in the fire Department for three months after Hurricane Katrina, forming what he said was a close link with the personnel. Several within the department acknowledged that bond, and had praise for the mayor.
© 2005 Bay St. Louis Newspapers, Inc.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Bay Waveland Merger Shelved

Bay St. Louis-Waveland merger study shelved
Financial outlooks still grim


HANCOCK COUNTY - Researchers have stopped work on a study of the potential benefits of merging Bay St. Louis and Waveland into one city, according to the government think tank overseeing the survey.

The two cities began discussing a merger sometime last year, after Katrina annihilated most of their taxable incomes and infrastructure.

Although the merger review has been shelved, a report released last week shows just how dismal the financial outlooks really were, and still are, for Bay St. Louis and Waveland.

"We have suspended the (merger) study and it was what we thought would be best for the two cities at this point," said Marty Wiseman, who runs the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, which launched the study in March.
Katrina washed or blew away nearly 65 percent of homes countywide and with them went the governments' property-tax revenues. The casino and other giant retailers that had generated so much of the sales tax used to form the cities' operating budgets are slowly returning.

When revenue streams turned into trickles last year, Coast leaders were left to find money to rebuild infrastructure- sewerage, roads and public buildings - and create competitive salaries for the staff needed to maintain city services, all while funding their daily operations.

"To the outside observer having two municipalities wiped off the map presents an opportunity that the cities may not have otherwise, but to the citizens in those cities, (talk of a merger) would present a very chaotic situation that they just don't need right now," Wiseman said.

Why stop?

Several elements contributed to the study's suspension: Researchers believed data collection was getting in the way of storm recovery and trying to engage locals consumed with repairing their own lives into a government-merger discussion would be difficult.

The two cities recently settled an annexation dispute, adding hundreds of new properties that won't appear on tax rolls until next year, which Wiseman said "drastically changes the property-tax dynamic."

Also, Waveland was in the midst of a sizzling election to decide who would lead the city for the next four years, but Wiseman is quick to say the decision to stop the research was made only by the Stennis Institute.

"I want to make it clear that we were not asked by Mayor Tommy Longo nor Mayor Eddie Favre to stop the study," he said. "We made that decision ourselves."
But had a completed study been published around election time suggesting a merger was the only means of ensuring survival, it would have instantly created the single largest campaign issue.

Waveland candidates mostly debated issues of future development, building codes, money spending and transparency at City Hall, but top government experts
advocating an all-out merger with the Bay would have spawned where-do-you-stand questions no candidate could have avoided.

"We certainly didn't want to influence anyone's campaign whatsoever," Wiseman said.

At one point last year, Bay St. Louis and Hancock County leaders sounded as if their governments were lashed to the railroad tracks, counting down the days, hours and minutes to unavoidable insolvency. Local leaders have since received some federal and state backing to barely stay afloat.

But though the Bay, Hancock and other Coast governments were spreading a dark message of despair and pleading for help - mainly financial - from anyone who would listen, political leaders in Waveland continued to portray an almost-thriving city that was leading the storm-recovery race with its deep pockets.

Longo was criticized by some of his opponents for being out of touch with the fiscal realities of post-Katrina government.

To his credit, the city did have a $3 million cash reserve to live on after the storm, but Longo bashers have said with an annual budget more than double the reserve, that money ran out long ago.

Despite Longo winning last week's mayoral election, a study favoring a merger for the betterment of the two cities could still shove the mayor into a corner.

According to state law, the mayor of the largest municipality, based on population, would become the mayor of the newly formed city, which means Longo would likely have to walk away from a seven-year career at Waveland's City Hall.
'Struggling to survive'

According to a 70-page report published last week by the Stennis Institute, Waveland and Bay St. Louis are still "struggling to survive."

The report is part of a three-year study by the Stennis Institute and New York's Rockefeller Institute to determine Katrina's effect on Coast governments and their budgets.

The initial report from interviews with local leaders shows sales taxes in Bay St. Louis dropping from about $1.5 million to about $400,000, property taxes being cut in half and the city's annual budget sliced by nearly 80 percent of its pre-storm level.
Most of Waveland's $6.5 million budget was supported through sales taxes, which the report says are staggering back to their pre-storm level.

From July 2005 to the same time in 2006, Bay St. Louis lost $349,279 of its state sales-tax transfers, and Waveland saw a 30 percent drop, losing $678,281.
Gulfport, by contrast a much larger municipality, saw a 39 percent drop in diverted sales tax that accounted for more than a $7 million loss.

A lot of the financial bleeding on the Coast has been slowed by state and federal grants, private donations and loans.

The Bay has borrowed nearly $8 million since the storm and has applied for an additional $10 million to cover operating and recovery costs. City leaders are hopeful most of the loans will be "forgiven" or turned into grants.

Wiseman, who is expected to soon discuss potential cityhood with community leaders in Diamondhead, said he expects to restart the Bay-Waveland merger study within the next 12 months or "when the time is right."

Labels: , , , , , ,

Web Site Hit Counter
1-800-Flowers Coupon