Hancock County

Near death, Tommy Longo brushed off his pain. He was worried about something bigger.

Less than two months after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo stands n front of what used to be Waveland City Hall. Longo led the city until the end of 2010, the year of the BP oil spill.
Less than two months after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo stands n front of what used to be Waveland City Hall. Longo led the city until the end of 2010, the year of the BP oil spill. Sun Herald file

Former Mayor Tommy Longo was a public servant, not a politician, former Gov. Haley Barbour said Monday after he learned that Longo had passed away over the weekend.

Longo’s three terms as mayor, from 1998-2010, were marked by natural and man-made disasters of historic proportions.

“He was somebody who ran for public office as a public service and was in the bull’s eye of the worst natural disaster in American history,” said Barbour, who led the state during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “I admired him and others like him because that isn’t what they signed up for. I can promise you that when he got elected mayor he never dreamed his hometown would be obliterated because I didn’t dream it, either.”

Disaster recovery was still very much a part of Longo’s life when he passed away unexpectedly Saturday evening at age 60.

“Tommy always loved Waveland,” said Beau Gex, who grew up with Longo and serves as Hancock County Port and Harbor director. “I think he got that from the fact that his daddy was mayor for so long.”

Swimming for life

Longo grew up with five brothers and sisters. He always had a big heart. When they were teenagers, Gex said, Longo recruited friends to paint a dilapidated house for a poor family. He organized a crew that got the job done over a weekend, Gex said.

Longo and his wife, Marcia, had a large family of their own, with seven children and more than 100 foster children over the years.

Longo was elected mayor in 2002, but when Katrina hit he was just another resident swimming for his life. He had undergone knee-replacement surgery four days earlier. The tide tore off his soft cast, and swept away his crutches and walker.

He had no time to tend the knee. His town lay in tatters, with 95% of homes and 100% of businesses damaged or completely destroyed.

City offices on Coleman Avenue were swept away or flooded.

“He hung tough, made the hard decisions and worked hard,” Barbour said.

Longo not only dealt with FEMA and the town’s recovery from the disaster, he tried to help residents, too. He always had time to listen, Gex said, adding that Longo had a great deal of patience.

Longo himself told the Sun Herald before the fifth anniversary of Katrina: “There’s no road map for what it takes to rebuild a city — literally from under the ground up . . . To say that it’s been a tough recovery is an understatement.”

Mentor after disaster

He shared what he had learned, for which nationally prominent journalist and Bay St. Louis native Kathleen Koch is forever grateful. Koch covered Hurricane Katrina for CNN and eventually wrote a book about her hometown’s recovery.

Longo and Mayor Chip McDermott of Pass Christian volunteered to help her with a new nonprofit before she even got it set up. LeadersLink connects elected leaders with experienced counterparts in the wake of disasters. Longo mentored Sea Bright, N.J., Mayor Dina Long after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Long remembers worrying that her small, devastated borough was being left out of media coverage.

Longo just looked at her and said, “You go get yourself on TV to-mor-row.”

“We were on CNN; We were everywhere,” Long said. “Tommy was the one who really coached me to get out front. I was really shy before all this.”

Longo also traveled to the Big Bend of Texas to work with elected officials after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

He never lost track of his family. He hunted and fished with his children, sharing his lifelong love of the outdoors. When he and Koch traveled together in Texas, she said, he was often checking in with his family, offering his children advice and support.

Koch last talked to Longo on Thursday night. He was worried about the pace of Panama City’s recovery from Hurricane Michael in October.

He said that he had been having some health issues, Koch said, but he quickly changed the subject to the hurricane.

“Literally, in his final hours, as he was weak and in pain, he was focused on, ‘How do we help other people?’ ‘What can we do?’,” Koch said. “He was so special and I will miss him for the rest of my life.”

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Coast it pushed a wall of water on shore higher than any that had hit the United States before. The 28-foot storm surge exceeded the record set by Hurricane Camille, also on the Mississippi Coast.