COVINGTON - Four Newton County deputies learned some valuable lessons during their recent trip to hurricane-ravaged Louisiana: Humidity there is terrible, but Cajun food fresh from the bayou is wonderful, and the hospitality is grand.
Lt. Mark Mitchell, Capt. Marty Roberts, Deputy Kevin Watkins and Sgt. Randy Downs reported for duty at the LaFourche Parish Sheriff's Office three days after Hurricane Gustav struck. Law enforcement officers there hadn't had a break in 72 hours.
"I think one of the most rewarding things of the whole trip was seeing the camaraderie between officers," Mitchell said. "We could listen to their radio and know they get the same stuff we do here ... and to see the smiles on their faces ... they'd say, 'Man, you're here to help us,' and they were all thanking us. When we got there, they were able to go get some rest and go to sleep."
Mitchell estimated that LaFourche Parish is about 35 miles southwest of New Orleans and covers a much larger territory than Newton County deputies are expected to patrol. It is 190 miles wide and 50 miles long with a population of about 100,000.
The four deputies from Newton County and two from the Walton County Sheriff's Office were among the first to arrive in Lockport, the town where the sheriff's office is located. The folks from Victory Life Church took them in, and they were first assigned to sleep in the gymnasium, which had no air conditioning due to the lack of electricity.
"Sleeping on an army cot for seven nights in a hot gym with 90 other people wouldn't have been fun," Mitchell said.
Instead, the six east metro deputies were told by the youth pastor's son that there were better digs to be had. He showed them a loft room that had air conditioning pumped in via a gasoline-powered generator, and he found them some real mattresses to sleep on. They had fresh coffee every morning, and Mitchell said that made the 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. shifts they worked bearable.
There was plenty of work to be done. They kept a sharp eye out for burglars and looters, and as the days wore on, there was no shortage of drunks and fights.
"Then, the sad thing was people were beginning to get generators and power was slowly getting established, then people started stealing generators. And if they didn't steal the generators, they would steal the gas from the generators," Mitchell said, shaking his head. "I thought, 'So, you're taking the power from a family that has small children away so you can have it for yourself?'"
Arrests were made. "They knew we were there," Mitchell said.
Also, intensive patrols and road checks were conducted to make sure the 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was kept. Mitchell said that effort no doubt interrupted some crime.
He said it wasn't only the officers who were appreciative of their support, but ordinary residents as well.
"Every corner we turned, someone would stop us and come up and say thank you," he said. "They'd ask us where we were from and we'd tell them and they'd say, 'Now you're family. Thank you for coming to Louisiana to help us out.' It was a good experience."
Mitchell said another benefit from the trip is that he is now more appreciative of the equipment the NCSO has. He said the sheriff's office in Louisiana was about 15 years behind in equipment and technology.
"Policing is policing, but when you have what we're used to here and then have to work without it, you appreciate what you have," he said, adding that officers there had to purchase much of their own equipment. He said the NCSO deputies were able to swap out some surplus equipment for them and they were grateful.
"But they took really good care of us," Mitchell said.
The deputies came home with new e-mail addresses and phone numbers, having bonded with officers and making friendships that never would have been possible without Gustav.
And should Texas give a shout, Mitchell said he was ready to go.
Barbara Knowles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.