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Grand Rapids Press - A year later, brothers, sisters still in need - by Ben Beversluis - 9/10/06


A year later, brothers, sisters still in need

Sunday, September 10, 2006
By Ben Beversluis
The Grand Rapids Press

The story caught my eye, but it wasn't even a banner head on the New Orleans Times-Picayune Web site.

"St. Bernard Parish Council condemns 3,049 more properties."

In a single meeting a year after Hurricane Katrina, one parish council condemned enough houses to more than fill a city like Zeeland.

We're barely aware anymore, and even in New Orleans, it seems that horrific news has become the norm. News people love anniversary stories, so we did our obligatory year-later stories last week. But while the disaster continues, has public concern waned?

Not for Jeff Jones, an Ottawa County sheriff's deputy and EMT. He's just back from New Orleans.

He was there for a memorial service for the people killed in Ninth Ward, where small houses still sit akimbo in the streets, topsy turvy in the fields. A year later.

He was there for a first-anniversary ceremony for the first responders, the police and firefighters who work every day but still don't have homes for their families. A year later.

Mostly, though, Jones was there to do something.


In an inaugural relief trip for a new group called Cops Helping Cops, Jones and three other public safety staff from West Michigan joined four from New York to rebuild the home of 18-year New Orleans Police Sgt. Eric Berger.

Berger, his wife and his two children, 11 and 9, are living in a FEMA trailer -- a stripped-down version of a travel trailer, smaller than most you'll see any weekend at Holland State Park.

The cops helping a cop replaced the electrical system, fixed plumbing and hung new drywall in the home that had been awash in 5 feet of water.

And they did something a whole lot more important.

"I think we did quite a bit," Jones said. "We gave him a lot of hope."

Despite all kinds of pressures, New Orleans police are in for the long haul. "Other people have the option of leaving, but they're dedicated to the city. They're going to stay there."

Jones, 32, does E-unit patrols in Park and Holland townships. He saw crime at a whole new level down South. "They're dealing all the time with shootings, crimes, drug wars -- and on top of that, they're dealing with not having a place to live, with not knowing where their family is going to live."

The new help group is the brainchild of David Fowler, undersheriff in Osceola County, and Christopher Lyons, a search and rescue person from New York, who met doing relief work in New Orleans and realized the troubles the cops there were seeing.

They were doing high-stress work without basic resources and support. Their own homes still were ravaged. Many were separated from their families for months while they continued to serve the city.

'More real'

Jones said his friend Fowler's first-hand reports got him involved. "It made it a little more real, just how awful it was, more than just hearing about it on the news, reading about it in the newspaper.

"I just felt I needed to go down there and do something, rather than just sending a check."

Jones has been an Ottawa deputy for two years. He used vacation time for the trip. The big sacrifice, he said, was his wife's, dealing with their two children and a part-time job. But she's a paramedic, too, and understood.

It was more than just helping out. It was helping out a brother.

"Being a cop, you're in a club. Nobody understands what it's like to be a cop unless you're a cop. It's a tight-knit group.

"We rely on each other for survival when we're out there working with each other, with absolute confidence your partner has your back.

"We wanted to transfer that over to off-duty, to help these guys out in a time of need."

On duty, cops often work with officers from other jurisdictions, officers they might not know, typically on the most volatile calls where extra backup is needed.

"You cover every guy there, just like he's your brother. That's the spirit of cops."

That's the spirit of Cops Helping Cops.

And maybe that's a spirit we all need to recall, a year later when it's easier to forget. A spirit to recall that, one way or another, we all have brothers and sisters still needing a hand.

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