La. police adapt to post-storm realities

By Jenny Hurwitz, St. Tammany bureau

Copyright 2005 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company 

When Slidell police brought in the "Santa Shack," a makeshift police office established next to their flooded station, they did it more out of necessity than holiday spirit.

Wreathed with twinkling white lights, the Santa Shack originated as part of the Christmas Under the Stars display in Griffith Park. But Police Chief Freddy Drennan commandeered the hut in a flash of post-Katrina resourcefulness, giving little thought to its holiday resonance.

Now, the wooden shack serves as a temporary 24-hour station, filling in for the department's first floor, which was flooded with 7½ feet of storm surge.

"We're doing everything different," Drennan said. "We had to utilize what we had. This was a small building we could put on a trailer and move right quick."

As the Slidell Police Department finds itself knee-deep in the holiday season, it does so while struggling with its own challenges. Almost four months after Hurricane Katrina swept ashore, officers still are working in improvised conditions, after floodwaters destroyed the station's first floor, which held the jail and the records and patrol divisions.

Given the tumult that officers have encountered, both at work and in their home lives, the Christmas season has not seemed quite as frenzied as usual because much of the agitation began months before, Drennan said.

The police mobile command unit, a traditional December fixture at the North Shore Square Mall in Slidell, has been in place for months, as shopping traffic increased dramatically after the storm, he said. It will remain after the holidays for as long as the department deems it necessary, he said.

While officers are stationed there to deter shoplifters and thieves staking out gift-laden cars, these days they are more often handling traffic jams and accidents, Capt. Rob Callahan said.

Drennan cited traffic as the leading problem his department faces, with officers responding to as many as 30 accidents in a 12-hour period, compared with a pre-Katrina count of four or five.

Once the holiday season ends, drivers may see some relief, but the bulk of the gridlock likely will remain, Drennan said.

"The buzzword with this situation is patience," he said.

Patience seems to be a key word for Drennan not just with regard to traffic, but in relation to all aspects of his work.

The records office, previously on the department's first floor, is now housed in a trailer park with the rest of the city government.

The department also no longer has use of its jail. It is sharing Pearl River's facility, which holds only eight people.

The first floor of the police station is a work in progress. But the gutted interior, marked with tufts of pink insulation and bare, wooden studs, is beginning to take shape.

Drennan expects to have the station back in operation as early as February. But he remains uncertain as to when, if ever, his department will regain some sense of normalcy.

"We've not hit the 'new normal' yet," he said. "In a few months, maybe. But we'll never get back to what we once knew as normal."

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Jenny Hurwitz can be reached at jhurwitz@timespicayune.com or (985) 645-2848. 

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