Post-Katrina: A Frustrated New Mayor in Pass Christian

After the storm, the Mississippi town's mayor was ailing and absent. In a special election, alderman Leo "Chipper" McDermott became mayor. Now he must try to keep the decimated town running despite a significant drop in tax revenue.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

It's been almost a year since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. The storm nearly leveled the town of Pass Christian, Mississippi. The town's recovery has been slowed, in part because the former mayor, Bill McDonald, was frequently absent due to blood pressure problems. He resigned under pressure earlier this year and this past week Pass Christian residents elected Alderman Leo Chipper McDermott to the post. He joins us from his home. Welcome Mayor McDermott.

Mayor LEO MCDERMOTT (Pass Christian, Mississippi): Thank you.

ELLIOTT: This has been a frustrating year for you and the other city officials. I'd like to quote from your notes from a Board of Alderman meeting earlier this year. You wrote, If you can't tell already, the aftermath might be worse than the hurricane. When do you think that reality really set in for you?

Mr. MCDERMOTT: Well that came in from - we were acting dysfunctional because Mr. McDonald had gotten sick and he was missing several meetings and we didn't have anybody in charge. We were just like lost sheep. There was no precedent of what we had to do. We were meeting at one time under a water tower immediately after the hurricane. Then we moved into the old fire station when they repaired it enough to where we were getting into crowds of two and three hundred people in there. And you could look in their eyes, and they were looking for us for answers and we were looking to ourselves to try to find answers, and it was just unbelievable.

ELLIOTT: You're a native of Pass Christian?

Mr. MCDERMOTT: Born and raised right here. I'm descended of pioneer residents. My grandfather opened up a dentistry office here in 1906 and he served as mayor while he was a dentist for 22 years, which is a record I'll assure you will never be broken.

ELLIOTT: Now, you lost most of the town's businesses as well. And I noticed from your Board of Alderman notes that you're getting help from the outside with your city budget. Recently, the city of San Carlos, California had given you a $10,000 donation. The Rotary Club donated a dump truck. How do you keep things running?

Mr. MCDERMOTT: Being a small town, up until two years ago, the town ran on about $30-35,000 a month sales tax, and then the rest of the money came from property taxes. We have some of the most expensive property in the state of Mississippi right here. We got Saint Drive. They start at probably 1.7 million for those homes and they're going up to one of the houses - the largest house in the state of Mississippi here. Then Wal-Mart came into town about two years ago and all of a sudden our sales tax jumped to 110,000 a month, so we were on Easy Street. Well, then the hurricanes come. It took away just about all the businesses, as well as Wal-Mart. So we had a serious problem.

ELLIOTT: Now, I understand the voters have some questions about whether Wal-Mart's coming back.

Mr. MCDERMOTT: We all want Wal-Mart back and they've told us from day one that they're coming back. They may build this different any other one. They may build it as a village with some even housing around there. I don't know. I know we want them back. We'll take them back any way they want to come.

ELLIOTT: Again I want to quote from your alderman notes for the Board of Alderman meetings there in Pass Christian, Mississippi. Back in May you wrote about the mood swings and weekly demands that went with the job. You said, Your heart has to be in the Pass or this will eat you alive.

What made you want to take on the bigger job, the bigger responsibility of being mayor?

Mr. MCDERMOTT: Well, I was already in the mix, so the mood swings as an alderman are almost the same as a mayor except that you're there everyday and you get to see more of it. A lot of people ask, why would you want to be mayor of a town that's just decimated? Or why would you want to live like that? And I watched TV for years and watched the Middle East, how they fought back and forth and say, how do those people live in that? But when it happens to you and that's where you live, it's a little different story.

And people on the Gulf Coast, no matter how bad you feel, you look out at the Gulf and see the freedom out there. None of us could live in land-lock. Nothing wrong with being a land-lock, but that's just not the way we are. We got too much salt water in us.

ELLIOTT: Chipper McDermott is the newly elected mayor of Pass Christian, Mississippi. Thank you for talking to us and good luck to you, sir.

Mr. MCDERMOTT: Thank you very much.

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