Fenwick Island police officer Jason Bergman didn’t have much warning that he would be heading to the devastated Gulf Coast region to provide relief to hurricane victims.
His Army National Guard unit was notified they were being called up for service on Aug. 30. They left their Delaware City base the following evening, crammed into the cargo hold of a military transport plane, along with their supplies.
Bergman is a veteran of the most recent U.S. action in the Middle East, having spent two years there, primarily stationed in Saudi Arabia. He’d seen people endure danger and hardship during those two years, but he still knew the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina would be like nothing he had seen in that desert region.
Bergman — the leader of his small group within the 153rd Military Police Company — warned his men about what was to come. “I told them they’d see a lot of things they hadn’t seen before,” he recalled.
Arriving in Jackson, Miss., the Guardsmen were already faced with the impact of the massive storm — there was no power, some two and a half hours inland from the coast.
“You knew something very bad had happened,” Bergman said. “The tops of trees were snapped off like toothpicks.”
For a day and a half, the guard unit prepared for the trek toward the coast and even worse destruction. They raided the supplies left behind at Camp Shelby – the headquarters of a Mississippi guard unit currently stationed in Iraq — borrowing their vehicles and other large equipment that couldn’t easily be sent in on the cargo plane.
From there, the unit headed for Gulfport, initially tasked with distributing food (in the form of military “meals ready-to-eat” or MRE’s) and water to those who needed them.
“There were a lot of people,” Bergman said, “a lot of elderly people.”
The area — much like Delaware’s coastal region — is largely populated by retirees, Bergman said, drawing the first of the parallels between the two regions that the Fenwick Island officer noted during his two-week deployment to the storm-damaged area.
Many of those older folks had ridden out and survived Hurricane Camille in 1969 — with winds estimated at 200 mph and a storm surge of about 25 feet, said by many to be the worst storm to ever hit the U.S., until Katrina took aim at the same region in 2005.
They’d made it through Camille. They’d figured Katrina couldn’t possibly be as bad, Bergman said. So they stayed. And now they were in need of such simple supplies as food and water. And Bergman’s Guard unit was there to provide.
As they headed farther south toward Gulfport itself, even the simple loss of power was a clear indicator of the degree to which things had changed from the norm. The company traveled along major highways, now reduced to blackness as night fell.
Generators powered not streetlights but gas pumps, as people lined up for 2 miles — at midnight — to get what little fuel was available for vehicles or generators of their own.
The residents of the Gulfport area had already gone two days without potable water from public supplies. There was no functioning sanitation system. Food and water were in short supply.
From that kind of desperation is bred lawlessness. And thus Bergman was among some 500 military police (MPs) sent to bring order to chaos.
Their duties were as simple as directing traffic in the absence of traffic lights, extending to controlling who was getting in and out of the area — some days, that was no one. They were also responsible for potentially more dangerous duty: patrolling the area for looters and other potential trouble.
Indeed, Bergman’s troop was personally responsible for arresting five looters. They also stood guard at gas stations, in four-man teams, knowing there had been a shooting at one of the area’s gas stations in the preceding days.
And when they were off-duty from their 12-hour days, there was still no rest for those weary soldiers — even during their free time, they chose to head out to distribute food and water to those who needed them and to assist with cleanup efforts.
Joining them for some of that work was fellow Delaware Army National Guard member Capt. Joseph R. “Beau” Biden, son of the state’s senior U.S. senator.
The indirect impact of the storm was strong even on the normally dispassionate Bergman, especially when he talked to the storm’s youngest victims. Two boys, in fifth or sixth grade, he guessed, lamented to him that they would not be able to play football in the near future, with their school closed indefinitely.
“How do you explain that to a little boy?” Bergman asked rhetorically from the distance of hundreds of miles and days away from the experience.
Everywhere the Guardsmen went, Bergman said, they told the Mississippi residents they had come from Delaware to help.
“There were a lot of thank-you’s,” he recalled, still appreciating the warm reception the Delaware Guardsmen received. They were joined by electric-company linesmen, Guard units, police officers and volunteers from around the country, who worked around the clock to provide assistance, according to Bergman.
“People from everywhere came to help,” he said.
Their aid was undoubtedly appreciated by those residents when other aid was so slow in coming and every bit of it was desperately needed.
Bergman said that nine days into his deployment, 85 percent of the area was still without power, with power only then being restored in some areas, renewing some ability for the people to shower off the dirt and muck of the storm and early recovery efforts. After 11 days, lights were just coming back on in some locations.
Beyond that personal connection to the victims he met each day, Bergman had one other tie to the hurricane-devastated area. He’d received firearms training there some 18 months prior. He knew the firearms instructor at one of the area’s police departments – and he called him to see how they had fared.
The news was bad. The police departments in many towns had been destroyed — flooded or washed away in the storm surge. Among the hardest hit were police departments in Pass Christian and Long Beach, Miss. Bergman asked if those departments needed help and was told they could desperately use it.
In Pass Christian, eight officers had weathered the storm inside their police station, only to be forced to retreat to the station’s roof when the storm surge picked up one of their police cruisers and slammed it into the brick building, opening it to flooding. They’d spent more than four hours on that roof before it was safe to come down.
The ruins of their police station — as with the one in Long Beach — held destroyed equipment, from desks and file cabinets to computers, uniforms and firearms. Long Beach had lost all but two of its 23 police cruisers. And those were all things they needed to keep the peace in a world gone topsy-turvy and filled with desperation and lawlessness.
The storm waters receded, but they left behind the debris of thousands of destroyed homes and businesses. Streets were largely impassible. There was no safe drinking water or sanitation. People labored to clear the debris but could not shower to clean off sweat, dirt or contaminated water from the flooding.
And the looters were now coming into the area in boats.
Even with a curfew running from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., local police were in dire straits just trying to keep the peace and help with rescue efforts. After he was 12 days in the region, Bergman said, Long Beach was still awaiting assistance from military police, though some help in the form of New York police officers had arrived in Pass Christian.
There, half the homes had been destroyed — including those of most of the town’s police officers. Still, few officers took the time to deal with their own losses or seek out family members who had evacuated. They had a job to do for those residents who had remained and needed assistance and security.
For Bergman, the news of the crises for the small police departments hit home. His position as a police officer meant he had a good idea how difficult the situation was for those officers.
Moreover, as his unit moved from Gulfport and Biloxi to those smaller towns, he recognized parallels with Fenwick Island beyond their populations of retirees.
Small towns meant small police forces, struggling to keep up with apocalyptic happenstance. That happenstance was exacerbated by the building choices of many of their residents — close to the Gulf of Mexico but not behind any protective dune line.
As in Fenwick Island and many of Delaware’s resort towns, houses were built off the ground on tall pilings — but that hadn’t protected them. The storm surge had been so large as to knock the home structures from their pilings — even leaving a boat atop what had been the first floor of one such home.
Bergman knew Fenwick Island could easily be just as completely devastated were a severe storm to hit. It brought the tragedy home.
“They’re at the beach. We’re at the beach,” he said. “We could be in their shoes. These people needed to be helped.”
And help was what Bergman set out to do — focusing on the devastated police department in Pass Christian. He contacted FIPD Chief Colette Sutherland, who spread the word to Sussex County’s other police departments, and helped Bergman organize an aid effort designed to gather donations of cash and items the police desperately needed.
When he arrived home last week, after two weeks in the Gulf Coast region, he found dozens of boxes of donations — everything from underwear and T-shirts to sunglasses, flashlights and police caps, donated by local police departments, individual officers and members of the public as word of the need spread.
Along with those items, and the basics needed to get the police department back up and running in the short term — until insurance claims can be filed and paid, until police stations can be rebuilt and cruisers replaced — Bergman is also seeking a way to transport those goods back to Pass Christian.
He’s hoping someone with a box or panel truck will donate its use for a handful of days in mid-October, and that others will be generous with their time, energy and funds to provide both the fuel to drive the truck of police supplies to Mississippi and a few extra hands to help Bergman with the driving and the delivery.
And donations will continue to be taken until that time.
Bergman said he is hoping for a donation of computers, as well as office needs like file cabinets, desks and chairs, along with the new Maglite-type flashlights, clothing and other needs for individual officers. And cash will go toward replacing such things as gun belts, radio holsters and tactical armor.
Surprised by and proud of the quick response of the people of Sussex County to his call for assistance for the Pass Christian police, Bergman is hoping their generosity will continue to be seen in the coming weeks until he takes the shipment to those who need it.
It will fit with the giving spirit Bergman witnessed during his time directly aiding the residents of the Gulf Coast.
“There were a lot of people doing a lot of good things,” he recalled.
And, personally, Bergman said, he found the experience of helping his fellow Americans to be gratifying.
“It was quite rewarding,” he said.