433rd Airlift Wing Airmen learn from Katrina

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Shad Eidson
  • Air Force Print News
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast one year ago, members of the 433rd Airlift Wing at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, quickly joined others from across the country to help in the relief efforts.

For some members, it was what they had trained for and they moved with a choreographed precision to do their part. Others found themselves in situations they never thought possible and had to develop plans as they went to airlift evacuees out of the area as quickly and safely as possible.

Within three hours of receiving the short-notice tasking, Senior Master Sgt. Scott David Bishop, airfield manager with the 433rd Airlift Control Flight, and his team members had set up shop, made calls, received inbound aircraft information, and established plans for crew quarters, rest, meals and everything else required so the crews could focus on flying the missions.

The flight was fully prepared to handle Air Force aircraft through normal channels, he said. However, Coast Guard, Marine, Civil Air Patrol and civilian fleet aircraft would arrive and were not a part of the tracking database, but nonetheless still had to be managed.

"We basically had aircraft dropping in unannounced, but due to our nature we were able to just use flexibility to step up and move in the direction that we normally do," Sergeant Bishop said. "It's our job to manage command and control in austere locations and the team made it happen."

When Hurricane Katrina was thought to be headed toward Texas, the 433rd's C-5 Galaxy aircraft were already prepped and ready to fly out -- a factor which proved helpful in getting the aircraft and aircrews into the gulf area quickly.

"When the hurricane diverted and hit Louisiana and Mississippi, we were geared up," said Senior Master Sgt. Rogelio Rodriguez, section chief for the 433rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "We were ready at the chalks -- ready to go."

Sergeant Rodriguez was a production superintendent during the Katrina relief effort, managing the production and generation of aircraft on the Lackland flightline. His team managed the overflow of commercial and Air Force airplanes to rapidly turn them around and get them back on the mission.

"We were running 24-hour work schedules and (my) guys were saying, 'Hey this is for a purpose. It's here at home. It's our shot here,'" he said. "No one complained."

Sergeant Rodriguez said he likes to be hands on, to be involved on the airplane, in the area, moving cargo and moving people.

"To be over here in the background just telling people what to do was a trial in itself. But you know we still got the mission done," he said. "It was beyond pride that we got the mission done, that we got those people out of those flooded areas."

While members of the 433rd were preparing the Lackland airfield for evacuee support, aircrew and aeromedical members were on their way to help Americans still in the heart of the devastation.

Master Sgt. Edward Campos, C-5 aircraft loadmaster, and his aircrew flew to Louis B. Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans to drop off fresh water and other relief supplies. They picked up people stranded during the flooding in New Orleans and took them to Arkansas.

"It was something that you just can't imagine. Even with all the (media) coverage, you had to see it for yourself to know what they went through," he said.

His crew did what they could to calm their passengers' nerves and assure them they would be going to a much better place, he said. But fully loading the C-5 and still seeing more people who needed to be airlifted out of the area was emotionally hard.

Not being able to get more people out of there "was very frustrating," the sergeant said. "You want to help as many people as you can while you can."

The organization of the evacuees including those who required medical attention at their end destination was a large collaboration effort of many agencies.

Chief Master Sgt. Rodney Christa was superintendent of the Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron established at Louis B. Armstrong International Airport. His team was responsible for getting all the patients on aircraft and to hospitals that could handle their medical needs.

Initially, there was no central staging area for the patients and no plan for all the people with various medical injuries, he said. All the agencies involved in the medical evacuation came together and there was a lot of insight and cross feed with each other.

"We were able to come up with a joint plan that would work for any type of situation that would require a massive evacuation of civilians," the chief said.

With an organized plan in action, Katrina victims began to be evacuated. However, the enormity of the task began to present some challenges.

"We got to the point where we physically couldn't carry them anymore," Chief Christa said. "We were physically overwhelmed."

With peoples' lives on the line, every team member played a critical role in overcoming any obstacle. In the end, a staff sergeant made the difference in how the operation continued with the idea to use baggage carts from the local airports to transport patients.

"The people in New Orleans who survived this, they've all had an event in their life that no one felt would ever happen. Now that they have gone through it and they have overcome it, they've got a self-confidence and knowledge that not all people have," Chief Christa said. "We know the things we can do and even beyond what we train for.

"We've taken lessons away from this that have improved how we do business in Iraq for mass casualty scenarios. We've been able to adapt some of our treatment plans to patients now," the chief said.