It was less than a week after Katrina laid waste to the gulf coast, and Billy McGee, the sheriff of Forrest County, Mississippi, was tired of waiting for help to arrive. So he ordered his deputies to nearby Camp Shelby, a FEMA staging area, and told them to commandeer two 18-wheelers loaded with ice that were being held under lock and key.
The officers followed McGee's orders. In the process, a National Guard soldier who tried to stop the hijacking was handcuffed. McGee is in hot water and may face criminal charges. But his community is backing him.
The opinion page editor of the local newspaper says, "Hang on." Six days after Katrina, the county had no power, no ice, and temperatures were in the 90s. The editor says FEMA's response to the disaster was anemic. People were hurting. Someone had to do something. A poll shows 88 percent of the county supports McGee.
In fact there is even a song out in the area, a tribute to McGee's actions. It tugs at heartstrings, but is a little rough on the ears.
I talked to McGee and his attorney for about an hour, all off camera. They don't like the attention and won't talk about the case with cameras running.
The investigation into the sheriff's action was being handled by a U.S. attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, but he recused himself. The case was transferred to a U.S. attorney in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who is deciding what to do with it.
I popped into a place where people are only too willing to talk about the case -- a blue-collar diner called Mom and Dad's Country Cooking, in Petal, Mississippi, just outside Hattiesburg.
The place was filled with burly folks who look as though they don't miss many meals. In between bites, we learned the sheriff isn't some cowboy. Far from it. They say he's soft-spoken, a local fellow who's serving his fourth term. He was a good softball player, and a guy who cheated death by beating leukemia. And to a person, they support what he did 100 percent. It's elevated the sheriff to folk hero status.
One fellow summed up the sentiment in the diner, saying, "He stepped up and did something for the people. That's it."