When Jason Bergman returned to his regular duties with the Fenwick Island Police Department last week, he had a surprise waiting for him.
Fresh from a two-week stint with his National Guard unit aiding victims of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulfport, La., and Biloxi, Miss. area, Bergman was faced with dozens of boxes of donated goods for the devastated police departments of that area — all thanks to his own charitable efforts and the response of his home community.
Bergman had attended firearms training in the area some 18 months before and made contact with his instructor upon arriving there Aug. 31 to ask if the Gulf Coast police departments had any particular needs.
As his unit moved through the Long Beach and Pass Christian areas in Mississippi, Bergman personally witnessed the devastation that not only left thousands homeless but left dozens of police departments with no equipment, uniforms, vehicles and, in some cases, police stations.
Many of the officers were residents of the towns it was their duty to protect and, like their neighbors, were faced with the total destruction of their homes and possessions. But the officers also had rescue efforts and the lawlessness of the storm’s aftermath to deal with.
The Long Beach Police Department lost 21 of its 23 police cruisers — and its police station. With no homes and no public water supply, the officers hadn’t showered in days. Some hadn’t seen their families since they evacuated. And 12 days into the disaster, they hadn’t even received support from military police yet.
And looters were now rumored to be entering the area by boat, just to take their pick of items left in the flooded areas.
In Pass Christian, Bergman learned, eight of the department’s officers had ridden out the storm in the police station — until one of their own police cars was thrown into the building on the storm surge and broke open a wall to flooding.
They fled to the building’s roof and were stuck there for four hours, until it was safe to come down again into streets where floodwaters were finally receding.
Bergman was not only able to see himself in the shoes of those officers with his own life as a small-town police officer, he recognized that Fenwick Island and Pass Christian were themselves similar — small coastal towns largely populated by retirees.
Just as Pass Christian’s homes were not protected by a substantial dune line, so Fenwick Island would be vulnerable in a storm. Just as the Mississippi dwellings were built on pilings and still were flooded and flattened, so could those of Fenwick Island be in a similar disaster.
So Bergman took the opportunity to spread a plea for help home to Sussex County, linking up with his own chief, Colette Sutherland, and officers in Millsboro and Selbyville, to begin to gather donations that would help enable the Mississippi officers to perform their duties.
“I called the chief and asked her if she could get in contact with other police departments and put a collection together to send back down there,” Bergman recalled.
From uniforms to radios, computers and desks to handcuffs, it was all gone and desperately needed. The police departments could help out with some items, but cash donations and simple, everyday items like flashlights, sunglasses and underwear were something every citizen could pitch in to provide.
And provide they have.
Early this week, Bergman said he had some 22 boxes of donations stored in his home — those in addition to the dozen boxes accumulated in Fenwick Island’s town hall since the call went out to the community.
Selbyville’s police chief, Scott Collins, had said his department would be sending more, along with donations from Millsboro’s department.
“I’m overwhelmed by how many people donated things in just a few days,” Bergman said. “I’m very proud.”
FIPD Sgt. William Boyden has been helping Bergman out, sorting the items and labeling the boxes so they can be efficiently distributed.
But despite all the help that has come so far, Bergman needs some additional assistance. Primarily, he needs some generous soul with a box truck to donate its use for at least three or four days so he can drive the donated goods to Mississippi, likely in mid-October.
While it was initially suggested the National Guard could help with the goods’ transportation, that’s not the case. And Bergman has struck out with big national shipping companies, who told him they’re too swamped to take on the task. In addition, neither Pass Christian nor Long Beach technically have delivery addresses.
The goods will have to be delivered in person.
Bergman is already making arrangements to take the three or four days off work to make that trip, but he’s looking for additional volunteers to take shifts driving and help deliver the donations.
And, along with volunteers and the truck, he also needs cash donations for another vital (and pricey) commodity for the trip: fuel.
Add that to remaining needs at the police departments, and there is plenty of opportunity for the community to continue to show its generosity and empathy for another coastal town in its time of need.
Bergman said the police still need computers, desks, chairs, file cabinets – all the things needed to furnish a functioning police station. (In Long Beach, they’re working out of a used 1970 trailer.)
New Maglite-type flashlights are another major need, along with the same basics he’s already had a limited amount of donated: T-shirts and underwear for male and female officers; hats; and sunglasses.
And, above all else, cash is needed to help the officers replace radios and radio holsters, guns and gun belts, uniforms, tactical armor, uniform shoes and all those other things that must be ordered but that can’t wait for insurance claims to be filed, processed and paid – especially when the needs of a storm-devastated community keep them on duty through their own personal tragedies.
For more information on the effort or to see if a particular item is needed, contact the Fenwick Island Police Department’s non-emergency number at (302) 539-2000.