Keesler Air Force Base: One year after Katrina

  • Published
  • By Perry Jenifer
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Bent but not broken by the worst natural disaster in the nation's history, Keesler's recovery continues to exceed expectations. 

"The damage to the base by Hurricane Katrina was a staggering $950 million. With that in mind, no one imagined in the days immediately after Aug. 29, 2005, we'd be where we are just one year later," said Brig. Gen. Paul Capasso, 81st Training Wing commander. 

The general sees Operation Dragon Comeback, the recovery effort, in terms of mission, community outreach, people and assets. For him, training, Keesler's primary mission, has led the way back.
"The initial thinking was that it would be at least six months before training would be back" he recalled. "In fact, it never went away entirely -- training was going on in base shelters during the height of the storm. Few realized it at the time, but I believe that was a sign of things to come." 

Indeed, Sept. 12, two weeks and a day after the storm, 81st Training Group officials reported most of the dormitories and facilities were in good shape and all instructors were back to work. Four days later, basic military training graduates from Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, arrived to begin technical training. 

By the time General Capasso took command of the wing Nov. 15, nearly 2,000 non-prior service students were in training -- more than before the storm. The numbers continue to grow. 

Another milestone was reached Aug. 21 with the return of the last student whose initial skills training was interrupted by Katrina, prompting General Capaaso to declare, "Today, our training mission is back 100 percent, thanks to the hard work of our Airmen." 

Even in the infancy of recovery efforts on base, Keesler's military, civilian employees and family members also were attentive to the post-Katrina needs of their neighbors on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One year later, this is still true. 

Nearly 8,500 volunteers have performed more than 600 humanitarian missions along the coast, according to Jon Lowe, community readiness technician at the Keesler Airman and Family Readiness Center. 

"Volunteers have put in almost 56,000 hours," Mr. Lowe said. "According to a formula used by a national volunteer organization in Washington, D.C., the dollar value of all that labor is more than $1 million." 

Mr. Lowe said humanitarian missions have run the gamut from rescue operations and cleanup immediately after the storm to home repairs and construction today.
"Keesler people are leaving a huge footprint in the coast community," he said. 

A similar footprint has been left on the Keesler community by its extended Air Force family. Personal property losses from Katrina were horrific for individuals and families. What 130 mph winds didn't blow away, a storm surge of more than 30 feet of water in some locations washed away. 

The response to the plight of Keesler people was nearly overwhelming. The Air Force Aid Society alone paid $2.1 million to military members and families, according to Jackie Pope, community readiness consultant. 

Military and civilians have received another $500,000 in grants of up to $500 per individual or family from the Katrina Relief Fund, which was established to manage cash contributions from around the world. 

Another $6,000 in assistance has been raised to date from the sale of Operation Dragon Comeback coins and patches. This is a joint effort by Chief Master Sgt. Aliquippa Allen, the wing command chief, chapel and family support staffs, and first sergeants. 

Most of the nearly $1 billion in damage inflicted by Katrina covers physical assets. The big ticket items include military family housing, $313 million; medical center, $66.3 million for restoration and $25 million for a central energy plant; Sablich Center, $7 million; base exchange and satellite pharmacy, $40 million; commissary, $38.6 million; post office, $2.5 million; multipurpose Services facility, $23.3 million; marina, $3.6 million; McBride Library, $5.5 million; fire station, $19.6 million; and flightline, $1 million.
Katrina destroyed or damaged beyond repair 1,067 of 1,820 military family housing units. 

Replacing those units involves the largest military housing construction project in history. Contracts are pending. Meanwhile, the demolition and clearing of home sites moves forward. 

Emergency services return to the medical center Aug. 28, followed Aug. 29 by a ceremony marking the reopening of inpatient services. A temporary satellite pharmacy opened July 31 in a modular building.

Work is under way at Sablich Center to repair the roof, replace the air conditioning system and restore the interior which sustained extensive water damage. The building, two stories high and a city block long, housed offices of the 81st Mission Support Group and several 81st TRW staff agencies. Scattered across the base now, those offices will return to Sablich Center when restoration is completed.
Both the base exchange and commissary were flooded by Katrina's storm surge. Both will be rebuilt on higher ground. 

AAFES' mini-mall was up and running three days after the storm passed, followed in short order by the military clothing sales store and a furniture outlet. AAFES also expanded the kinds of goods available at the Four Seasons store.
A mini-mart is under construction. When completed early next year, the facility "will allow AAFES to expand our merchandise assortment and offer many more categories that are typically found in a base exchange," according to Danny Schmidt, general manager. 

A shopping mall and satellite pharmacy four times the size of the 40,000 square foot mini-mart is being designed. 

A temporary commissary has been open in the former Keesler Community Center since Sept. 29. A new site has been designated for a 106,000-square-foot permanent commissary 

"Thanks to the efforts of our exchange and commissary folks, Keesler people were able to get essential goods shortly after the storm," General Capasso said. "They didn't stop there, but have continued to expand their inventories." 

The new post office and various recreational facilities are also on the drawing board.

Sixteen of the 18 holes on the golf course have been playable for months. Work began earlier this month on reconstruction of the No. 4 and 7 fairways and No. 4 green.
With the Keesler Club closed due to storm damage and the Keesler Community Center converted to a temporary commissary, the base was without a social gathering place immediately after Katrina. Enter outdoor recreation, which moved out of its main building at the marina and into the enclosed pavilion in marina park to make way for the Katrina Kantina. 

Outdoor recreation has resumed fishing trips and pontoon boat rentals. Rebuilt boat docks and piers are expected to be available next spring. 

A "fire, crash and rescue" facility near the flight line replaces the storm-damaged fire station. 

Flightline repairs include hangar roofs and doors, and the air traffic control tower.
"There's a lot to be done yet, but we've come a long way in a short time," General Capasso said. "Katrina was one for the record books. So is Keesler's comeback."