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MacDill Airmen tackle Hurricane Katrina relief project

by 1st Lt. Janice McDowell
6th Security Forces Squadron

Courtesy Photo

It might look like Woodstock, but the relief effort for Katrina required volunteers from MacDill to sleep in tents because there were no hotels

Recently several MacDill Airmen took advantage of an opportunity to aid those devastated by Hurricane Katrina in Pascagoula, Mississippi. MacDill Airmen sacrificed their personal time and sleep as part of the continuous effort to help those who suffered devastation during this powerful storm.

The weekend started Sept. 30, when everyone met at a local chapel just a few miles from MacDill. Bags, gear and supplies were loaded in a small moving truck while the 23 volunteers were assigned seats in two vans. The convoy also included a construction utility truck owned by one of the volunteers.

Once loaded, the team headed out with plans of driving through the night with hope of taking advantage of an entire Saturday to serve others. Drivers switched every two hours while the others attempted to sleep. Anticipation filled our thoughts and uncomfortable seats ensured we did not doze for more than half-hour stretches. Valuable sleep time was filled when one of the Airmen encouraged everyone to play "I spy" at 2 a.m. Despite plans already going slightly awry, lack of sleep wasn't evident when we reached Pascagoula early the next morning.

It was a sight to behold. More than 200 volunteer tents dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see; they literally covered the ground. What little could be seen past the establishments was pure devastation. If you calculate two or three people per tent, you can imagine how many volunteers came for this weekend alone. Our volunteers received some time to set up our tents before being assigned homes and heading out in small groups.

It's hard to put into words what we saw as we traveled the streets. We passed by neighborhood blocks where trees outlined property boundaries yet, the houses were gone. A local community center had a boat leaning against it despite being two miles from the coastline. Roofs were missing; signs were destroyed; streets were teeming with volunteers.

One of the groups consisted primarily of MacDill troops; from the 6th Security Forces Squadron, 1st Lt. Janice McDowell and her husband Mylan; Staff Sgt. Patrick Tegard, Staff Sgt. Jenelle Ray, Airman 1st Class Vanessa Martinez, Airman 1st Class Luke Bennett, Airman 1st Class Priscilla Garcia, Airman 1st Class Ashley Kirtley and John Anderson (retired). Another group included Master Sgt. Steve Witschen and Tech. Sgt, Gail Philibaum, Senior Airman Joseph Tuiolosega-Radicchi, and Senior Airman Thomas Gough, from the 6th Maintenance Squadron. Senior Airman Noelle Scala, 6th Operations Support Squadron also helped out.

Airman Kirtley expressed her determination best when she stated "I've wanted to help out ever since Katrina hit I just couldn't pass up an opportunity like this." The assignment was assisting Mrs. Smith, a widow. Although her house didn't have much wind damage, it suffered severe water damage when four feet of storm surge invaded the property. Her daughter, son-in-law and grandson soon put the eager Airmen to work. Inside, they removed ruined ceiling tiles, insulation and prepped walls for new drywall including replacing damaged studs.

Outside was a different story; the ground was covered with debris from the receding flood waters. Large pieces of roofing tar, waterlogged books and hundreds of DVDs were everywhere. Destroyed family pictures hid among the dead leaves and branches, drove home the severity for these victims.

All in all, we estimated the removed debris to weigh more than 1,000 lbs. The Airmen downed a severely damaged tree along with 20 feet of grapevine so meticulously cared for by Mrs. Smith's late husband.

Once we finished, the look of relief and appreciation from the Smith family made our small contribution worth the minor discomforts we experienced. The transformation was tremendous. With the clean-up finished, the Smith's could now focus on rebuilding. We returned to Tampa a more grateful group thankful for our families, friends, and all that we have.

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