(photo by Santa Monica Fire Department)

CITY HALL — The City Council Tuesday approved a measure that would allow the city of Bayou La Batre, Ala. to keep two loaned fire engines, culminating an arrangement made when the town was rebuilding after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

In 2005, the southern coastline of the United States suffered one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory.

Hurricane Katrina, which eventually grew to a Category 5 storm, smashed through coastal communities, leaving utter destruction where homes, businesses and schools once stood.

While New Orleans with its infamous levees became the poster child for the disaster, other communities were negatively impacted as well.

Bayou La Batre, immortalized in the movie “Forrest Gump” as the home of Forrest’s friend Pvt. Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue, looked like something you’d see on the nightly news, said City Councilmember Bob Holbrook.

“The city contacted Bayou La Batre and offered to lend them any assistance we could,” Holbrook recalled. “We have sister cities all over the world, but this is an American city, and we wanted to do something.”

City Hall gathered nearly 20 vehicles and pieces of heavy equipment that were slated for public auction and paid to ship them to the stricken city to begin the process of clearing rubble and removing fallen trees from roadways.

“Their only tractor was sunk under water,” Holbrook said.

Civilians also got in on the action, donating chainsaws and other equipment. Members of the City Attorney’s Office even volunteered to lend their services to help apply for grants and skirt legal hurdles in the process.

A year later, the town’s troubles still were not over.

“The tallest building left standing in the town was reserved for elderly people,” Holbrook said. “They didn’t have a ladder (on a fire engine) that could reach the top floors.”

Holbrook, who was mayor at the time, reached out to the mayor of Bayou La Batre to offer two vehicles, one hook and ladder truck and one water pump engine, which were essentially on Santa Monica’s third string and about to be cut.

Engines in Santa Monica tend to last about 10 years before City Hall replaces them, said Battalion Chief Walter Shirk.

“It’s a matter of maintenance and new innovations, technical aspects that were no longer current,” he said.

That didn’t bother the mayor, a volunteer firefighter, who needed the well-maintained equipment to outfit the force he was in the process of trying to convert into a professional, paid department.

Fire Chief John Wiggins, a professional firefighter in Mobile, Ala. for 33 years, was called out of retirement to lead the department. He was shocked at what he found.

“After being a paid firefighter for that long of a time, it was atrocious,” he said. “There was no equipment, and what equipment they had was outdated, not maintained and not suitable for fighting fire.”

When he found out that two of Santa Monica’s engines were available, he was “ecstatic.”

“We were like kids at Christmas when we received them,” Wiggins said.

Five years later, the engines are still down there, but until Tuesday, they were “on loan” from Santa Monica.

That became a problem when the department needed to bring them to a professional mechanic to replace cables that are required to stay up-to-date on appropriate certifications.

“It takes money, big bucks, to do that,” Wiggins said. “You also need verification that the trucks belong to you.”

So in May, the Bayou La Batre Fire Department requested that City Hall transfer the title of the engines, a result always expected under the loan.

City Hall would have donated the engines outright if it had been possible to get the process done quickly enough, Shirk said.

The donation is a boon to Santa Monica for two reasons. First, the old engines would cost more to ship back across the country than they’re actually worth, according to a staff report.

Second, the loan of the engines came with a promise that Bayou La Batre would be there for Santa Monica, like a brother in arms, if a natural disaster ever struck.

“We did it to help another city. The only agreement we had with the mayor was that when the big one hits, they’ll be here,” Holbrook said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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