Kirkland, Walla Walla adopt Katrina-stricken Pascagoula - Firefighters finish goodwill mission in Gulf; get call in Atlanta airport and head to Mississippi

In a case of sisterly love, Kirkland and Walla Walla have teamed up to adopt the city of Pascagoula, Mississippi, which was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Shortly after the storm hit, Kirkland officials were contacted by its Eastern Washington sister city to consider joining them in officially adopting the Gulf Coast town, said Assistant City Manager Lynn Stokesbary.

Pascagoula, which is largely dependent upon shipping and tourism for its economic well-being, contains approximately 26,500 residents and is located just east of Biloxi on the gulf coast of Mississippi. According to a recent press release from Stokesbary, Pascagoula "is in desperate need of funds to resume basic operations and assist its citizens and businesses in obtaining fundamental needs and continuing essential functions."

Stokesbary says that Pascagoula's city manger and downtown association said that their "downtown was devastated. They've got about 2,000 people who haven't returned to work in their shipping industry. They've lost their tax base."

As a result, the city needs money, plain and simple. Pascagoula officials have informed Kirkland officials that the city hall is in trailers and the schools are significantly damaged. Stokesbary noted that clothing and other items are arriving unbundled. "They need a building, a warehouse to get things assembled," he said.

Why Pascagoula? It's a waterfront town with an active main street program, which is the equivalent of the Kirkland Downtown Association. When Walla Walla approached Kirkland officials, "We said, 'sure we'd be happy to try to assist,'" said Stokesbary.

Kirkland has formed a steering committee, comprised of city staff, representatives from the local business community and Kirkland citizens, and is working with a similar counterpart from Walla Walla. On behalf of the steering committee, Kirkland Firefighters met with Pascagoula representatives on Oct. 6 to get a first-hand report on conditions, following a month spent supporting FEMA's efforts in the Gulf Coast area.

In a unique twist of fate, six Kirkland firefighters from neighboring stations happened to be in Louisiana lending their services for a week and half at the end of September. They were on their way home - in the Atlanta airport - when Capt. Dana Olsen from Fire Station No. 26 in North Rose Hill go a phone call.

"The deputy chief and fire chief [from Kirkland] asked if we could swing by to see if there was anything we could do," said Olsen. "So we met with a gal [Rebecca Davis] who runs the Main Street program."

Olsen and his comrades drove around with a police sergeant and fire chief to get a sense of the damage they suffered. "It was more of the same we had seen in Louisiana. Wind damage, flood damage, displaced people. City hall had been flooded so they were working out of a single-wide construction trailer about a mile from the original building. They had no timeline when they were going to go back."

Olsen, who has been at the Rose Hill station for 29 years and captain for the last 10, said that "overall it was a good experience. There was some frustration, but the job is very different than what we do on a daily basis. The people there really just wanted to talk to somebody. They just wanted to tell us their story."

The other firefighters who attended the special relief effort were Capt. Bryan Vadney (No. 22, Houghton), Lt. Ken Henderson (Forbes Creek), firefighter Bill Henderson (Ken's brother but at No. 26), firefighter Tom Clark (No. 22) and firefighter Tom Bach (No. 22).

The fire department is not the only Kirkland service organization to lend a hand: Lt. Rex Caldwell of the Kirkland Police Department organized a donation of surplus uniforms and other needed police equipment. "The main thing is to try to get as much to them as possible," says Stokesbary. "Any amount of funding is helpful. The goal is to help them get back on their feet."

At press time (end of October), Stokesbary reported that city employees had donated some of their vacation time, amounting to $3,800. If you would like to send in a donation, please make checks out to "City of Pascagoula" and mail to City Hall, 123 Fifth Ave., Kirkland, WA. 98033.

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