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Hurricane relief efforts under way at Keesler AFB

Photo by Tech. Sgt. Jennifer C. Wallis

This is the charred rubble of the home belonging to Col. Bruce Bush, 81st Mission Support Group commander, Sept. 1. The house exploded during Hurricane Katrina.

Photo by Tech. Sgt. Mike Buytas

Students with the 332nd and 335th Training Squadrons here prepare to be evacuated to Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, aboard a C-17 Globemaster III from the 58th Airlift Squadron, Altus AFB, Okla., Sept. 1. More than 2400 students and non essential personnel will be evacuated from Keesler because of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. - Hurricane Katrina tried to give Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., a knockout blow. But though it left a huge path of destruction in its wake -- it did not succeed.

The massive storm devastated the base. No doubt about that, base officials said. And it claimed the base's once vibrant training mission. But while staggered, Keesler still stands.

"We're in survival mode right now," said Staff Sgt. Chris Galletto, a command post controller. His job -- made even more critical by the circumstances -- is to pass and receive information. "So we can't really look forward to, or anticipate, what's to come."

But whatever the future holds for the Gulf Coast, he said, things "will not be the same here."

Fortunately, Keesler was more prepared than some for the hurricane. The base practiced hurricane evacuations and the Keesler community made it to shelters. Then the storm's winds and tidal surge took most of their homes. Many remain in shelters. There are few places on the base that did not sustain some kind of damage.

Afterward, the base breathed a collective sigh of relief, said Brig. Gen. William T. Lord, the 81st Training Wing commander. Still, he said, there is apprehension in the air. People are asking "what are we supposed to do next?"

"There are a lot questions, and we're attempting, with the help of a lot of folks, to answer those questions," the general said.

But with the Air Force mobilized to help in rescue and relief efforts, the answers may take some time.

One thing is for sure, now the base has a new mission. It is to safely recover and evacuate its people and then bed down the follow-on forces that will help the region recover, the general said.

"The main mission now is the recovery of our people," the general said. Even with its limited communications, the base has accounted for "approximately 98 percent" of its people, he said. Out of the 16,000 at the base before the storm, by Sept. 2, only 127 remain unaccounted for.

"We believe those are people who got out of the local area" before the storm, the general said.

During the storm, 6,006 people were in base shelters.

The general said the base is evacuating people who no longer have a mission at the base, "since we can't do technical training in facilities that are destroyed." Earlier in the week, Air Force transport aircraft landed at the base's damaged runway and took critical hospital patients to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

At Air Education and Training Command Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, Col. Susan Helms said, "Training at Keesler Air Force Base is suspended for the foreseeable future."

General Lord put that more into perspective, saying training at the base might not start again until March, "and it may be longer" than that.

And as far as what will happen at Keesler, Colonel Helms said, "It's too soon to know the exact recovery plan for all Keesler Air Force Base technical training programs, or how long students will have to remain at their new training locations."

What is clear is that everyone at Keesler must move somewhere else. The Air Force is evacuating students to other bases. And the evacuation of the rest of the people at the base has already started.

Students are leaving aboard Air Force cargo planes for other bases. More than 1,000 Airmen fresh out of basic training, or in their first few weeks of technical training, left for Sheppard AFB, Texas, on Sept. 1. There, personnel officials will decide their future. General Lord said some may receive their Air Force specialty if they were within a few days of graduating.

If not, he said, "They may be reclassified and go to other places to train."

At Sheppard, another huge technical training base, the evacuated students might just wait for another assignment. The commander of the 82nd Training Wing, Brig. Gen. James A. Whitmore, said his people are trying to make their transition as seamless as possible.

"We all need to be very sensitive to the fact that these are very young Airmen new to our Air Force," General Whitmore said. "We need to provide comfort for them."

Other students at Keesler are also leaving. About half of the nearly 1,300 there on temporary duty for upgrade training have already left the base. Most in their own vehicles. The rest, General Lord said, will go to Maxwell AFB, Ala.

"We need to evacuate them so they can get back with their families," General Lord said.

Also, more than 40 international students and some 30 of their family members have already evacuated to Maxwell so they can return to their home countries, the general said.

That leaves people assigned to Keesler who live on and off the base. The general said base officials are handling their cases individually.

Those with no damage to their homes may elect to stay at the base until they receive an assignment. Or they may elect to go to an AETC base that can lodge them -- like Maxwell -- to await reassignment. People with destroyed homes are living in Keesler temporary lodging while they wait to resolve their situation. They, too, will then evacuate to an interim base. And in some cases people who lost their homes may elect to return to their home of records to await resolution of their status, the general said.

The Air Force has cancelled all assignments to Keesler, the general said. And, he said, people assigned to the base -- who have not returned -- should not return. Instead, they should call the number to the Air Force Personnel Center Personnel readiness center for instructions at (800) 435-9941.

The general said base officials are being sensitive to the immediate needs of Airmen and their families. The main goal, he said, is to ensure Airmen have a say in their future and on how to best take care of their families as "we get them back into the mainstream of our Air Force."

Sergeant Galletto said the strategy works. Before the hurricane, he sent his wife and two children to stay with friends at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The Gallettos had packed their belongings and were ready to move. But he fears all his household goods are lost in the storm. The stress of not knowing is something many at the base are experiencing. But he said all is not lost.

"I've gotten whatever I've needed in support to take care of my family," he said. "Everybody has worked their butts off to help us."

Since his family is already at Eglin, the sergeant hopes to get an assignment there.

As the base comes back to life, outside the base gates -- what's left of them -- there is disorder like never before. In many places along the ravaged Gulf Coast, chaos and anarchy are the rule. Armed looters pillage at will and snipers take shots at rescue crews. Keesler did not escape that reality and, at one time, Airmen had to stop looters from getting on the base.

People are talking of leveling New Orleans. And the city of Biloxi, for decades the partner that helped the base, now relies on its uniformed neighbors for the sustenance of life.

But as the people at the Gulf Coast base try to recover from the horrors brought by the storm, they are already moving on. General Lord, who lost all his belongings when a 22-foot wall of water smashed through his on-base home, said Keesler will recover. And it is because of the people and their extraordinary resiliency.

"Keesler will rebound. I'm not certain what Keesler's mission will be," General Lord said. "But certainly the people here are prepared to plan it to be better and stronger that we ever were."

At the moment, Sergeant Galletto said, Keesler is just working to take care of its own. And until that's done, he said, "I'm glad I'm here and not outside the gate." But in a couple of days, "we can reach out to the people outside the gate," he said.

General Lord said Biloxi and other communities close to the base are already getting help from the base. The hurricane hit the communities hard and some do not have electricity and clean water. The base has little reserves to give.

"But we're taking what little we have and sharing it with our friends," he said.

The general said the base is planning to divert the water from one of its main water towers into the city. And it is providing the fire department the diesel fuel needed to keep its emergency generators running. And a major telecommunications provider is building a cellular telephone system on the base to restore some communications.

Because "the strength of our Air Force is clearly in the fine people that are in it, Keesler will rebound," the general said.

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