Life after Katrina, Airmen ready to help again

  • Published
  • By Louis A. Arana-Barradas
  • Air Force Print News
The fifth tropical depression of the year is gathering force in the Caribbean Sea and making a beeline for the Gulf of Mexico. It might, or might not, turn into a hurricane.

Either way, there is no doubt Airmen at bases along the Gulf Coast are wondering if they will soon have to hunker down and weather another big storm.

Fresh in their minds are the terrifying memories of what they faced during and after Hurricane Katrina tried to sweep the Gulf Coast off the American mainland.

Will they soon have to relive the Katrina nightmare? This is a question that comes too soon, less than a year after Katrina became the benchmark by which Americans would gauge future hurricanes.

The storm almost erased New Orleans off the map. And as the massive storm moved across the region, it almost put Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., out of business. Nearby, the storm took a heavy toll in Biloxi.

At Keesler, which suffered nearly $1 billion in damages, the wing commander summed up the attitude of all the people at his base, and across the Gulf Coast, who survived the storm.

"Don't count us out," said Brig. Gen. William T. Lord, then the 81st Training Wing commander.

So when the storm moved on to wreak havoc across other parts of the country, the U.S. military mobilized to help like they had never done before. After climbing out of their shelters Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen donned their uniforms, got out their gear and started to recover and support of the hundreds of thousands of people Katrina affected.

The general, who lost everything he owned but two cars and some suitcases full of clothes, said the military had never faced such a domestic dilemma. Led by U.S. Northern Command, the military's mission became "the rescue of Mississippi and Louisiana," he said.

Soon the air above New Orleans, the rest of Louisiana and Mississippi was abuzz with military helicopters on search and rescue missions. Airmen plucked people off roofs and flew them to safety. They continued their search and rescue for days.

Higher overhead, U-2 reconnaissance aircraft took the photos that showed just how devastating Katrina was. The images enabled first responders to concentrate their efforts in the most damaged areas.

But that wasn't all the Airmen did. Across the region, Airmen went to work to help their neighbors. Red Horse engineers worked around the clock to clear tons of debris, first at Keesler, and then in Biloxi. And even before they had fully assessed how bad Katrina had struck them, Airmen went outside the base to bring food and water to their neighbors.

Air Force transports flew people from flooded New Orleans to a host of cities around the country. At San Antonio, for example, medics, a hot meal and a shower and a clean and dry place to stay awaited them.

Ralph Price Sr. arrived at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. The family lost everything to Katrina and he said the Airmen at Lackland were the best thing that happened to his family since the storm hit. In the confusion of New Orleans, and in the rush to get out as soon as possible, the family nearly split up. Conditions in New Orleans were like in a concentration camp, he said.

But the welcome he got from the Airmen at Lackland gave him hope.

"You don't know how happy we are to be here," he said.

At bases not affected by the storm, Airmen helped the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up staging areas to get their equipment close to the ravaged area. And Air Force helicopters and transports ferried agency assessment teams to affected regions.

Air Force health care providers went door to door helping people near Biloxi. And they helped reestablish the medical infrastructure washed away by Katrina. In Gulfport, Miss., Keesler medics helped at the local hospital.

Keith Watters was a patient. When Katrina wiped out his home, he also lost all his medications. He suffered five days in pain until he could get to the Gulfport facility. He could not say enough about the Airmen who attended him.

"The Air Force people on the Gulf Coast did provide a lot for the people here," he said. "They don't care about the red tape -- they just help you."

As the 2006 hurricane season starts to hit full speed, the Gulf Coast waits for the next storm to hit. Like after Katrina, they can count on Airmen to be there if they need help again.