Keesler AFB, 97th AEG team up to support Katrina humanitarian relief

  • Published
  • By Capt. Greg Justice
  • 97th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs
It was late August and a lot of us wearing the uniform were marching along with our Air Force careers serving our nation.

Weather reports showed a hurricane that appeared stronger than most.

Initial reports of Katrina's aftermath indicated the levees in New Orleans held - and the city was OK.

However, those messages changed. The levees in New Orleans had breached, leaving most of the city flooded. The news coverage became broader, spanning past the damage in New Orleans to cover other affected coastal areas. Many of us watched disaster unfold at our home base and were awestruck at the power of Hurricane Katrina and the misfortune of those affected.

Hurricanes had always been associated with organizations like the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and in some cases the National Guard. But now the Air Force was going to put an Air Expeditionary Group response package together for hurricane assistance. I realized: this response would be different than any package we had ever assembled before.

New Orleans is a major American city with a population of more than half a million people. The region is home to a large portion of American energy production. The area's ports play a significant role in our nation's trade and commerce.

But most importantly, at that moment, thousands of Americans were suffering from Hurricane Katrina, from western Alabama through Mississippi and into Louisiana.

At Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., there was no loss of life, but initial reports showed drastic damage to the industrial and housing areas. Fifty percent of the base was under water. The base was without electrical power and using generator power at mission critical facilities. The base hospital was without electrical power due to flooding in the basement, said Maj. Ray Mottley, 81st Civil Engineer Squadron commander.

Today, the cost to rebuild the base stands at roughly $1 billion.

Even while reeling from the effects of the hurricane, within days, Keesler began providing food, water and bed-down shelter to members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and FBI personnel operating in the heavily affected gulf coast region.

Keesler AFB was able to divert one of its water towers to the heavily damaged city of Biloxi and its surrounding communities just two days after the hurricane made landfall, providing the only safe drinking water in Harrison County.

Base personnel quickly assembled two medical and humanitarian teams to visit local shelters in the surrounding communities and started providing relief in the form of meals-ready-to-eat, water, battle dress uniform clothing, fuel and medical aid.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it caused, FEMA requested the Department of Defense designate Keesler AFB as an operational staging area for Mississippi relief efforts. To enable this new mission, the Air Force mobilized 250 Airmen and established the 97th AEG, operating under the Northern Command and Joint Task Force-Katrina. Commanded by Col. Linda Medler (97th Mission Support Group commander, Altus AFB, Okla.), the advance team arrived at Keesler Sept. 6.

When most of us arrived at Keesler, the devastation was unbelievable. There wasn't an established practice or an Air Force Instruction that covered something like this. We didn't have time to hold lengthy meetings to draw up plans or to train our personnel on these missions. The situation was bad, and it was only going to get worse.

"The scene of tragedy and human anguish propelled us into action. We had a skilled and adaptable force with an eagerness to serve," said Colonel Medler. "I just told my people go forth and do great things. They took it from there."

The base became the temporary home to the FEMA Medical Support Team and approximately 70 medical teams from numerous states. The primary logistics support for other FEMA relief relied on Gulfport and Jackson, Miss., as primary distribution hubs. Along with the FEMA MST personnel, 1,300 other relief workers -- national, state, local and non-government -- lived on the base during the height of the relief efforts immediately after the hurricane.

The 97th AEG managed billeting accommodations on a day-to-day basis, and ensured all personnel supporting Joint Task Force - Katrina and FEMA had adequate quarters. The group also developed and implemented a plan to bed down personnel that would free up student dormitory space. The base's core mission provides training for some of the most in-demand technical specialties, some of which can not be trained at another other locations due to the specialized equipment at Keesler. The group's creativity and responsiveness significantly contributed to the 81st TRW's ability to reconstitute training six months ahead of schedule, and bring back students to the base just three weeks after the hurricane.

The humanitarian duties and mission locations varied for members of the 97th AEG and Keesler's permanent party personnel. Some members organized a regional FEMA medical supply warehouse while others worked with the Army Corps of Engineers covering roofs with protective sheathing. Fuels personnel refueled hundreds of generators in the community, allowing municipal public works and emergency vehicles to continue to operate in the densely populated Biloxi-Gulfport area; they also fueled commercial airliners flying evacuation missions. Other members worked long hours keeping medical aid stations along the gulf coast stocked with supplies to treat hurricane survivors.

Even in the wake of losing their own homes, Keesler members selflessly put aside their personal concerns and played a key role in providing humanitarian relief until the 97th AEG could assume the majority of those duties. Several Keesler AFB members helped rescue eight dolphins trapped in Gulfport Harbor, and others worked tirelessly to restore power to numerous facilities and repair a boiler to return hot water to billeting.

Over time, independent and nationally known relief aid stations began to appear in communities, but it was apparent to members of the 97th AEG, success was dependent upon manpower, relief supplies, logistics and know-how.

The newly acquired Salvation Army Division Street relief warehouse was in disarray; just days before it had been a fully functioning shrimp packaging factory. No one could predict when or where aid shipments would come and when they would go out. In one day, 38 members of the 97th AEG reconfigured the warehouse into a functioning redistribution center. The warehouse soon became one of the central logistics hubs for aid flowing into the gulf coast region.

Three 81st TRW flat bed rental trucks and four large Air Force trucks, delivered 2,740 bags of ice, 1,000 canned goods, 1,500 cleaning kits, 500 blankets, 2,000 bottles of water and an additional 540 gallons of fresh water to local churches and distribution points in the neediest areas.

The initial delivery to the First Tabernacle Baptist Church in D'lberville was 20 pallets of nonperishable food. Members of the 97th AEG went to work in setting up a market-like operation, where people could come in, grab a basket and load up with food items, cleaning supplies or baby care products. They would come to the counter, and aid workers would package the items into bags for easy transportation back to where they were living.

With no electricity or natural gas to cook with, MRE's were critical to nutrition. Between Keesler and 97th AEG personnel, almost 200,000 MRE's were delivered throughout the hardest hit areas of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The communities' force protection organizations and other similar agencies were also in need. One day a 97th AEG crew took eight pallets of MRE's to the Harrison County Sheriff's Department, while another crew constructed tents in Gulfport to be used by FEMA. Yet another crew delivered 16 aid pallets to the Salvation Army in Long Beach. Also, a 13-member crew delivered 40 pallets of clothing and bedding to Goodwill in Gulfport.

This type of activity would be repeated several times a day -- day after day.

Ten members of the 97th AEG, reservists from the 914th Services Squadron at Niagara Falls, New York, spent three weeks working side by side with the Army Corps of Engineers to enable their "Blue Roof" project. These Airmen registered 12,800 home owners into the program and inspected, approved and completed 5,800 homes. They increased the capacity of the Corps from completing just three roofs a day to more than 500 a day.

The efforts of 38 members of the 97th AEG quadrupled FEMA's support to their 15 forward medical sites. The Airmen inventoried and organized the FEMA medical logistics staging area, located on Keesler, sorting more than 22 tons of much needed medical supplies.

From the Army Corps of Engineers, to the Red Cross, from Florida Fish and Game to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, all personnel praised the outstanding support provided by Airmen from the 97th AEG and Keesler. Many organizations called back after completing their mission just to say "thanks" and pass along their appreciation.

As Keesler and the gulf coast region is stabilizing and the scare of Hurricane Rita is past, the 97th AEG is redeploying its members to their home stations and transitioning relief operations to the 81 TRW.

Most of us who came to Keesler and served as part of the 97th AEG have described it as being a life-changing event. Master Sgt. Kurt Schroeder, also of Altus AFB, described the drive back to Keesler after delivering aid to Waveland, Miss., as "humbling."

"Witnessing all of these people in despair with their homes gone and what broken possessions that were left piled up at the edge of their property for debris removal really makes you think about your priorities in life," Sergeant Schroeder said.

Many of us get caught up in our personal concerns, but when disaster strikes, we are reminded of our true feelings and loyalties. Those who wear the Air Force uniform are also reminded of our allegiances and the pride we take in seeing so many selflessly serve others. JTF-Katrina may be a first for our nation's joint services and total force team, but an abundance of spirit existed toward the idea of Americans helping Americans.

The members of the 97th AEG made a difference in the lives of thousands of Americans along the Gulf Coast. The 250 proud members of the 97th AEG went home with a sense of accomplishment, a feeling that they played just a small role in helping their fellow man, and were part of history. For all, it was an honor to be called to serve on this historic mission and reach out with a helping hand. It was truly what "service before self" is all about.