KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- An Airman here moves a pallet of water that will be used for hurricane humanitarian aid and relief in the local community. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Efrain Gonzalez)
KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Brig. Gen. William T. Lord (left) walks with Col. Bruce Bush in a housing area here that was hit by Hurricane Katrina. General Lord is the 81st Training Wing commander, and Colonel Bush is the 81st Mission Support Group commander. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Efrain Gonzalez)
KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Large excavation equipment and a convoy of trucks work around the clock here moving debris caused by Hurricane Katrina. More than 400 volunteer Airmen and Red Horse civil engineers worked nonstop to ensure roads were accessible and main base areas were cleaned up. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Efrain Gonzalez)
KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- With training operations suspended, Airmen do their part to clear the base of debris left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's destructive path. With the help of more than 400 volunteers and Red Horse civil engineers, the base has begun to resemble how it looked before the storm. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Efrain Gonzalez)
9/12/2005 - KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina caused $500 million in damages at this training base, it has become a vital staging area for Gulf Coast disaster relief efforts.
The base has a new transitional mission supporting relief efforts, said Brig. Gen. William T. Lord, 81st Training Wing commander. And the fact it has recovered enough to perform that mission is proof that people should not count Keesler out, he said.
But is the base capable of making a comeback?
“You bet we are,” the general said. And in the meantime, Keesler will continue its new mission as an aerial port.
The new mission, directed by U.S. Northern Command, is to provide operational support, feed and house the hundreds of people from state and federal agencies setting up operations here to continue relief operations. Their task is to continue “the rescue of Mississippi and Louisiana,” the general said.
Only 2,700-plus Airmen remain at the base, all essential to the ongoing mission. And only those with a job needed here can return from wherever they waited out the storm. Red Horse civil engineers and hundreds of volunteer Airmen -- clothed in whatever uniforms they could salvage before going to shelters -- continue the daily cleanup of the base.
And the airlift of relief supplies to the base continues. To help with the airflow, the 615th Contingency Response Group from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., has set up operations. The group’s Airmen are experts at running and maintaining bare-base flight operations.
Though damaged by the huge hurricane, the runway was open 11 hours after the storm left its path of destruction. The golf course next to the runway was still underwater, and water still covered the end of the airfield which ends at the Bay of Biloxi. There were still waves hitting the new shoreline when cargo aircraft started to land, the general said.
“You could literally surf at the end of our runway,” he said. Days after the storm, Airmen were still finding “fish flopping on the runway.”
With storm clouds still on the horizon, big C-17 Globemaster III and C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft started flying in much-needed food and water. When they left, they evacuated critically ill patients, expectant mothers and technical training students to other bases. With all the air traffic, in three days the base quickly transitioned from the 99th busiest runway in the Air Force to the fifth.
As people here came out of their seven shelters, the general said the wing’s first mission was to figure out how much damage the storm caused. The destruction was huge.
A tidal surge rose out of the Bay of Biloxi and destroyed up to 1,000 of the base’s 1,800 homes, along with the inhabitant’s belongings. In one on-base housing area, water rose to rooftop level. Some of the damaged homes -- still leaking smelly bay water -- are so unstable that people still cannot go into them to see what they can salvage. And nearly every base building had some kind of damage caused by winds that blew at a constant 100-mph clip for 12 hours.
A huge loss was also suffered at the hospital, the Air Force’s second largest medical center. It provides services to thousands of people here, and to more than 50,000 military retirees along the Gulf Coast.
The tidal surge, which rose more than 3 feet in two hours, filled the hospital’s basement and forced the evacuation of 1,300 people sheltered there, said Brig. Gen. (Dr.) James J. Dougherty, 81st Medical Group commander. The staff was able to save more than 150,000 medical records.
However, Dr. Dougherty said the facility received “severe damage to a lot of capability.” Gone is “the MRI, our radiation oncology -- where we do the cancer treatments -- and our emergency room,” he said.
The hospital closed. Now, there is a temporary facility set up in tents in a parking lot close to the medical center. But the staff can only provide urgent or sick call care to the people assigned here and their families and the hundreds of federal workers now at the base.
Unfortunately, retirees have to seek care elsewhere, Dr. Dougherty said. Those with Tricare coverage are authorized to seek medical care where they live, he said. They do not need referrals.
Though there are 150 contractors repairing the damage at the hospital, “We’re looking at a six-month timeframe” before the hospital opens, Dr. Dougherty said.
The base has more to cope with than its own losses; people here are also focused on another key task -- “reconstitute folks’ lives” -- their own and that of their neighbors, General Lord said.
“We knew we were going to end up being the first responders to our friends outside of the gate,” he said.
As soon as the weather cleared enough to venture outside, Airmen began to funnel food, water and medical supplies to devastated neighboring communities. The base routed water from one of its five 475,000-gallon water towers to Biloxi, which did not have potable water. And medical teams started traveling off base to provide urgently needed medical care.
So even though Keesler’s people lived in shelters, many were already providing humanitarian relief. The base was the first federal agency to provide relief to local communities, General Lord said.
“We shared the things that we had,” he said.
The base has shared a lot. By Sept. 10, the amount of aid Airmen here provided to affected communities through their self-initiated humanitarian relief effort was enormous. By truck or helicopter, Keesler provided more than 300,000 pounds of relief supplies, more than 107,000 military rations and 26,500 gallons of bottled drinking water.
Now that Federal Emergency Management Agency has taken control of relief operations, Airmen here are cleaning house. Huge mounds of debris are around the base waiting for disposal. Airmen returned home to sort through what is left of their homes. General Lord said he has watched people deal with their terrible losses and then go back to work to carry on with their jobs.
“Folks now are kind of beyond most of that (grieving),” he said. “Those who are here are really focused on our missions.”
The humanitarian relief will continue for as long as needed, and as cargo aircraft continue their airlift, the supply warehouses are full of food, water and other supplies destined for Biloxi and other nearby cities and towns. To help get relief supplies to the people who need them, the 97th Air Expeditionary Group arrived to take over providing support to federal relief agencies.
“We’re here to help in any way we can,” said Col. Linda Medler, the group’s commander.
Now the base can concentrate more on getting back on track, General Lord said.
Last week, the Air Force did not know what would happen to the base, or if could return to training by the beginning of the year. But General Lord said the future of Keesler is still in the training business. Now, he said, the base may begin training students sooner than expected.
“We thought, initially, it might not be until March that we’d be able to do training,” he said.
Keesler is the only place where training for several critical Air Force specialties takes place. For example, it has $10 million air traffic control simulators not available anywhere else in the service.
“We need to stand our training back up,” General Lord said.
While officials figure how to best do that, some training has resumed. Navy students have restarted electronics training. Keesler still has a future when it recovers, the general said.