Slidell, La., Sheriff Fights to Keep Down Crime After Helping Town Survive Hurricane Katrina

One year after Hurricane Katrina smashed into Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, washing away hundreds of communities and lives,'s Catherine Donaldson-Evans visits Slidell, La., to find out first hand how one town is determined to rebuild. This is the fourth of her series of exclusive reports.

SLIDELL, La. — When his precinct turned from a suburban town into a lake in a single, disastrous day, Slidell Police Chief Freddy Drennan had only one thing on his mind: Saving his people.

The police department in this small city on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain was submerged after Hurricane Katrina churned through town on Aug. 29, 2005.

But Drennan didn't dwell on that. Much of the rest of Slidell, 30 miles north of New Orleans, had also disappeared under six to eight feet of brown, swampy water. And residents who'd ignored evacuation warnings — 90 percent of whom did so out of complacency, according to the chief — needed immediate help.

"For the first three days, our only mission was search and rescue: Saving human lives," said Drennan. "We rescued whole families tied to tops of trees." People had climbed up into the treetops and secured themselves with "rope, wire, anything they could find" to keep from being blown away by the hurricane-force winds, he said.

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In order to complete that mission, the first order of business was commandeering any little boats Drennan's force of 104 could find floating around in the post-Katrina chaos. In the worst hit southern and western portions of Slidell, the filthy, muddy water was too high, too toxic and too full of debris to do the house-to-house checks on foot.

"As soon as the wind was low, people started to holler for help," he said.

"You could hear them yelling, Help! Help!" added his public information officer, Capt. Rob Callahan, who was with the chief every day in the aftermath of the storm.

In the total blackness of night — Katrina had knocked out power for hundreds of miles — those voices and some flashlights were all officers had to locate the stranded residents. Aside from the ones clinging to trees, there were also people perched on roofs, hanging onto road signs and holed up in attics.

But somehow, no one in the Slidell city limits perished as a direct result of the hurricane.

"It was absolutely a miracle," Drennan marveled. "One reason nobody died is because of the tenacity of the men and women here."

A few did die in the days afterwards, either from natural causes, in car accidents or, in at least one case, when a tree toppled over.

Almost immediately, the chief decided to secure Slidell as a safety precaution, blockading its perimeter to prevent anyone from coming or going. There are no emergency shelters in Slidell because it's in a flood zone.

"Where would refugees go? There are no shelters," Drennan said.

There was also the matter of what to do with the prisoners housed in the tiny 28-bed jail on the swamped first floor of the police station — which only houses those convicted of misdemeanors like DWI, minor shoplifting or traffic violations, not felony and violent offenders.

The storm emergency plan calls for city officials to send inmates home and have them come back to prison in three days to finish serving their usually light sentences. This time, that wasn't possible.

"Three days later, in the waist-deep water, I was coming to work by boat and one guy had a bag over his head and his hands up," Drennan said. "I sent him away."

In fact, all 15 to 20 prisoners who were in the jail at the time did report back to police somehow. They were sent home to their families, too. Many were given a new court date. Some who were nearing the end of their sentences were granted time served. And others are now in another prison in the area that Slidell is running, because its own jail is still under construction.

There were about 10 felony offenders around when Katrina hit, Drennan said. They were in town for what's known as the "trustee program," in which prisoners convicted only of non-violent felonies who have earned certain privileges can work for the city and stay in a dorm-like facility in the government complex.

"We kept them here with us," the chief said. "They rode out the storm. They helped us work. They cleared the streets. They cooked." Only one of those trustee prisoners who stayed during Katrina is still in Slidell.

Forty-eight officers on the police force lost their homes, including Drennan himself. They worked 22-hour days for the first month after Katrina wreaked havoc on the town, even though they themselves had nowhere to go.

In order to keep up their momentum, Drennan directed officers to break into stores on drier ground to get air mattresses to sleep on in the emergency command center and untouched second floor of the police station. They left notes listing what they'd taken and what they owed, then secured the buildings before leaving, he said.

They also got their hands on clean clothes, boots, socks and as much food and water as they could find. Slidell Coroner Peter Galvan recommended tetanus shots for all the first responders to protect them from infection in the infested water that was covering a wide swath of town. And he gave them Vitamin B12 injections to boost their energy levels, according to Drennan.

Once the 72-hour search-and-rescue effort had ended and the chief was confident each and every house had been covered, law enforcement set to work protecting Slidell from sinking into a crime wave, like parts of New Orleans did in the mayhem that reigned immediately after the hurricane.

Other than setting up barricades around the city, Drennan imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and even made a few arrests of violators who didn't empty the streets at night when warned. He increased police presence in town with the manpower he had.

Though violent crimes like murders, rapes and armed robberies didn't happen in those early days after the hurricane, there was some looting. Police made nine looting arrests, according to Drennan.

One local business owner who stayed during Katrina staved off an incident at his wine shop and bar, known as The Wine Market.

"We had looters," said Doug Reker, 43. "There were four guys coming at [my then 12-year-old son], who was holding my shotgun. I said, 'Give me the gun.'"

The men fled. And The Wine Market, which had just opened a few months earlier and had escaped major damage from Katrina's floodwaters, also narrowly missed a break-in.

"There was not a light on in the whole city. It was scary. I stayed for the business," Reker said, sitting at a table in his lounge-like, dimly lit bar. "We were lucky."

'It's Our Job and Duty' to Protect Slidell

Because of the population shifts that have happened in Slidell in the year since Katrina — with many contractors descending on the town from other devastated areas to find work and others moving in because their own hometowns are worse off — Drennan worries about crime rising.

There recently was what appears to have been a drug-related quadruple murder just yards outside Slidell city limits, something that would have been unheard of in the area before Katrina. The victims were all from New Orleans East. Drennan said his department is helping in the investigation, even though it's outside his jurisdiction.

"It is a result of the hurricane," Drennan said of the massacre. "The law enforcement community is extremely concerned about the changes we're seeing in the area, like those types of events."

Though reported violent crimes have actually dropped in the year since the hurricane, other kinds of crimes are up, according to the Slidell Police Department.

"I see my main problems as drugs and drug-related crimes," Drennan said. "We certainly have had drug problems here pre-Katrina — name me a place that doesn't — but it has been magnified. Drug dealers have relocated."

Among reported crimes only (meaning not all lead to arrests or convictions), burglaries are up by 80 percent, auto thefts by 29 percent and assaults by 12 percent; murders are down 75 percent, as are rapes by 60 percent and robberies by 35 percent.

Drennan said his tactic is to crack down hard on so-called "smaller" offenses like possession and sale of drugs, vandalism, shoplifting and even disturbing the peace.

"Those very minor quality of life issues lead to big, huge problems," he said.

But keeping a handle on it is no easy feat, considering that the financially strapped city can't afford to hire more officers. Drennan said he's asked his existing force to step up their efforts and work more overtime. And they've met that challenge.

"They have made me awfully proud to be their chief of police," he said.

Though Drennan is deeply concerned about the future of his community, he hopes his strategy will work. He wants to preserve the Slidell that was.

"We intend to work very hard to keep crime low here," said the chief. "It's our job and duty to protect the people of this city."

Part I: One Year After Katrina, Slidell, La. Shows Gulf Coast’s Determination to Rebuild

Part II: Katrina-Battered Slidell, La., Must Also Rebuild Arts Scene

Part III: Slidell, La. Small Businesses Among Katrina's Many Victims