Sifting through memories of devastation and hope along the Gulf Coast
A lone figure stood in the midst of scattered remnants of what was once a family’s home. Memories, now garbage and debris, covered the earth as far as the eye could see in all directions. The repulsive smell of rotten bananas and dead chickens cut through the stifling summer air from a destroyed shipyard. Biloxi Mississippi, home of Keesler Air Force Base, was truly “hell on Earth” directly following Hurricane Katrina — one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
This was the scene countless Gulf Coast residents found themselves in after the storm made landfall Aug. 29, 2005. The storm caused chaos and flooding, but some still had to venture outside in the nightmarish scene to salvage basic necessities for the base population.
Braving a Hurricane
“The (81st Civil Engineer Squadron) commander at the time said that he couldn’t let us go out into the storm, but I told him that if we lose water we are done,” said Al Watkins, the then 81st CES utilities manager. “The only way that we can be here is if we have sustainable clean water.”
The pressure for Keesler AFB’s water wells was dropping dangerously low. With only one well on an automatic transfer to generator power and flood waters at six feet and rising, something needed to be done.
“(A chief master sergeant in my shop and I) went out and started switching the power over to bring the water wells back up,” he said. “We were sitting in a dominator (truck), which sits off the ground about 10 feet. At first I was thinking ‘we got this,’ but when you start driving through high waters it becomes (really) scary.”
As Watkins and the chief master sergeant braved the storm in over 100 mph winds, their slow trek to bring the base’s water back online looked like a scene from a horror movie. Only half of the base commissary building was visible through 7 feet of water and several cars around the base were on fire because saltwater was covering their electrical systems, he recalled.
“When you start seeing all of this, it affects you to a point where you can’t really believe it,” Watkins said. “We knew we were going to get it, but we didn’t think it would be this bad.”
With all the chaos surrounding the base, the images became hard to process.
“It messes with you psychologically, because you start wondering about those who aren’t prepared,” he said. “You know the mission goes on, but driving throughout the base and seeing these things makes you just not even believe that it is happening. It was pretty scary.”
There was little time to dwell on fear during that unnerving drive around the base. Watkins had received a call — an urgent plea for help from personnel at the base hospital’s boiler plant.
“The (Biloxi) Back Bay sits right behind the hospital,” he said. “So this water is coming in, but the boiler plant sits 3 feet into the ground. The water was up to the chests of the guys who were out there. We took the truck and rescued two of our civil engineer boiler operators.”
Despite completing the rescue mission and bringing the much needed water wells back online, it seemed like Watkins and his team couldn’t catch a break.
“We got everything done and got back. Then we found out that some of our sewer lift stations stopped working, so it was just one thing after the next,” he said. “The sewers were just so filled with back bay water that the pumps were burning up.”
Seeing all the devastation around the base and thinking of those who were out in the storm, Watkins couldn’t help but think of his own home and wonder how it had faired.
“You try to keep a positive spin on it, but now you are wondering how your own house looks,” Watkins said.
Losing it all
Julianne Bocek, a program manager with 2nd Air Force; her husband Tom, a retired senior master sergeant; and their 16-year-old son, TJ, recalled climbing over mountains of rubble, pieces of houses and trash during a two hour walk to get to their neighborhood the morning after the storm.
“We hiked through the family cemetery and as we come around the bend, we have a straight view of our lot and it was nothing but a slab,” Julianne said.
“Well, some people lost everything; we at least had the lower part of our toilet still bolted down, so we had a place to sit and think,” Tom chimed in.
A positive attitude and sense of humor helped the Boceks through the total loss of their dream home. Of the 67 homes in their neighborhood, only a series of foundations remained. It was a loss echoed by many people who had homes along the coast and surrounding areas.
Weeks went by before Watkins too was able to return to his home to assess the damage to his property.
“It took me two weeks just to go check out my own house,” he said. “Half of the roof was gone. I lost everything.”
Watkins knew that in order to move past the storm he’d have to start the rebuilding process immediately, not only for his home but also for his base and his community.
“I just took a step back. I put a big piece of plastic on top of the roof and went to help the neighbors across the street because they were elderly,” he said. “They had a big part of their roof that wasn’t gone, but the shingles were gone. So I went up on the roof to help fix it and fell off twice, but I kept going. I didn’t make it back to my house until five weeks after that day.”
Overall, the Gulf Coast suffered an estimated $105 billion in damage, with Keesler AFB alone amassing $950 million in damage. More than 95 percent of the base’s infrastructure was compromised. Some feared the base would never again open its gates, which would change the face of training for the Air Force.
Road to recovery
The physical structures on Keesler AFB and the surrounding areas may have been destroyed; however, the spirits of the base community members were anything but diminished.
“We took portable generators out to the hospital because they had a person on life support,” Watkins said. “That was just the start.”
Because of the damage, parts of the city lacked even the most basic of necessities. This was something Watkins witnessed as a woman whose skin and clothes were covered in mud from the back bay approached him asking for a drink.
“She just wanted some water,” he said. “I saw that the housing area residents were all gone so I grabbed some water hoses (and) put them together. She just sat there and teared up. That’s when I knew that we had to do something.”
Keesler AFB had the only clean water for miles. Watkins and his crew began working around the clock to supply fresh water to the surrounding areas, filling up water trucks and delivering the life-sustaining fluid to the community, he explained.
The base also provided assistance wherever it could in the form of volunteers.
Watkins said though the days were long and tiresome, in a time of tragedy the base’s members rallied and ensured that Keesler AFB would return better than ever.
Rebuilt and resilient
“Moving forward from victim to survivor, that makes you resilient,” Julianne said. “What was standing here, it was just a house. It was just stuff. This is what home (is) all about – this here, my husband, my family.”
Driving around Keesler AFB and Biloxi now, there are very few reminders of the storm and the devastation it brought to the area. Most of the buildings have been repaired, rebuilt or replaced. At the end of it all the awe-inspiring sense of camaraderie and family is what helped the coast survive and continue to thrive.
“The resiliency of the folks here at Keesler was amazing,” Watkins said. “We didn’t just sit down and wallow. We got up, brushed ourselves off and said let’s go. We knew we had a mission to continue and we did it.”
Just a few years after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Keesler AFB rebuilt, recovered and earned the Commander-in-Chief’s Installation Excellence Award in 2013, naming it the best base in the Air Force.
“My name might not be on any walls anywhere, but this is my base,” Watkins said proudly. “Keesler is a part of me and I’m emotionally connected to it.”
Production by Andrew Arthur Breese and Staff Sgt. Pete Ising. Story by Greg Biondo