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Tommy Longo, mayor of Waveland

A stint as a mental health therapist might seem a strange stop on the way to a career in City Hall, but it just might have been the perfect preparation for dealing with a disaster like the one facing Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo.
Tommy Longo, mayor of Waveland, Miss., has lost his "cool a couple of times," but keeps searching for positive signs for a stressed population.
Tommy Longo, mayor of Waveland, Miss., has lost his "cool a couple of times," but keeps searching for positive signs for a stressed population.James Cheng / MSNBC.com

A stint as a mental health therapist might seem a strange stop on the way to a career in City Hall, but it just might have been the perfect preparation for dealing with a disaster like the one facing Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo.

For the 47-year-old Longo, dealing with frustration has been the key to keeping his sanity since Hurricane Katrina slammed his town, leveling virtually every home and business on the gulf side of the railroad tracks that bisect Waveland, and leaving most other buildings uninhabitable.

“I guess I … lost my cool a couple of times – once with the governor and once with the president’s staff,” he said in an interview in his makeshift office atop the city sewage treatment plant. “But it was because of the stress.”

The stress, he said, sprang from wanting to help his people in the immediate aftermath of the storm, but not having any way of doing so, with virtually every vehicle and piece of equipment owned by the city either swept away or left inoperable.

“It was having a task and knowing what to do and having the people capable to do it, just not having the resources to do it, whether it be vehicles, or parts, or pipe, material, even sand or clay,” he said. “… My God, we’d have given anything for a golf cart at the time.”

Adding to his stress level was the loss of his home and the fact that his family, including his injured wife, Marcia, was stuck in the devastated city.

“I didn’t get my family out of here until three days after the hurricane and my wife had a broken wrist and a broken cheekbone,” he said, noticeably limping around his office as the result of knee-replacement surgery shortly before Katrina hit.

“… And I’ve got five kids … and they’d set off on their trek every day – it broke my heart – but they’d leave here and walk out to the highway every day to get ice and water and food and stuff. And it was just no place for a kid to be. It was no place for anybody to be if they didn’t have to be.”

Longo, who has since sent his family to stay with relatives in Maine, knows something about places where kids shouldn’t be.

He is a son of former Waveland Mayor John Longo Jr., who was in office in 1969 when Hurricane Camille smashed into the city. The younger Longo took office seven years ago, after his predecessor became too ill to serve out his term.

Prior to that, he worked for 20 years as president of the family trucking business, Southern Frosted Foods, and then later as a mental health therapist, where he began a pilot program for adolescent first offenders in connection with the Youth Corps.

Though Longo said the challenge of dealing with the destruction of much of Waveland has at times been overwhelming, he and the other city officials have made it through by setting small, achievable steps aimed at boosting the morale of the townspeople.

“Folks just needed anything that … was positive, that showed progress,” he said. “We cleaned off the church; we pushed all the debris and things off the church and we started having church (services) the week after the hurricane on the slab.”

Longo also noted with pride that the town already has taken its first step in the rebuilding process by attracting a Lowe’s home improvement store.

“Lowe’s had called … (to) give me their condolences … and I called and said if you want to do something for our community … open a store,” he said.

The company agreed, and a ground-breaking ceremony was held in early October, although construction won’t begin until the city can set up temporary housing to accommodate the workers.

The Lowe’s deal and slow but steady progress in restoring utilities and cleaning up the sea of debris from the storm are just the first signs of Waveland’s recovery, Longo said, predicting that the building of “a model community from scratch” will occur much faster than most observers believe.

“In some ways we’re way ahead of the expectations of FEMA and the state,” he said. “And I had told them early on, ‘You all are underestimating us. … We’re very resilient and very resourceful. And given just a hand, we’ll be way ahead of where you think’”