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Hurricane Katrina takes heavy toll at Keesler AFB

by Louis A. Arana-Barradas
Air Force Print News
Air Force photo

Facilities at Keesler received extensive damage following a direct hit by Katrina.

SAN ANTONIO -- Hurricane Katrina smashed "a good 95 percent" of Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., turning it into a pile of debris and mud, said a base spokesperson.

Lt. Col. Claudia Foss, 81st Training Wing public affairs officer, said water surges from the Gulf of Mexico and the Bay of Biloxi reached depths of five to six feet at times.

"Whether it was five feet, one foot or a few inches, at one point everything was covered with bay or Gulf water," she said.

Fortunately, there have been no reports of people killed or injured at Keesler, she said. More than 6,000 people rode out the storm in seven shelters at the base and all are accounted for. But elsewhere the storm has claimed at least 68 lives and the death toll is expected to rise.

The colonel said what the base looks like now compares "to being in Iraq" because of the destruction and debris scattered everywhere. The storm knocked trees down or stripped them of their limbs.

"Power lines are down," she said. "We've got light poles that are just bent over and there's nothing around them -- so how did they bend over? Everywhere you walk, there's either debris, trees that have fallen over or mud."

According to officials at the Air Force Climatology Center at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., the maximum winds at the base gusted to more than 90 mph. And sustained winds of 50 mph buffeted the base for most of the time.

The devastation at the base near Biloxi is widespread, as it is along the Gulf Coast and further inland. Floodwaters destroyed much of the base housing area and heavily damaged industrial areas, the colonel said. And the storm damaged a big part of the base runway.

"In many homes, there was three feet of water," said Colonel Foss, who lost her home to the flooding. "In my house, the wall facing the bay is gone."

The colonel said one home burned down. Other homes less damaged by flooding are "not liveable," she said.

Near the base front gate that faces the Gulf, six-foot deep water flooded the commissary and exchange stores. Many buildings have missing roofs and walls. Teams are working to clear as much debris as possible so people can return to their homes for the first time since moving into shelters late last week.

"So we're anticipating how folks are going to react," the colonel said. She said many will find their homes destroyed. But at least they can make "an initial assessment on whether or not they can salvage anything."

To help people cope with the events of the past few days, teams of chaplains and life skills specialists are available at each shelter, Colonel Foss said.

"Definitely, we're taking care of our active duty members and their families," she said.

There is no power at the base hospital, so patients must move elsewhere. Medical personnel from Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland AFB, Texas, left for Keesler Aug. 30 to help evacuate about 25 patients, medical center officials said. Three critical care teams and one obstetrics team left on a C-130 Hercules. Keesler officials will evacuate less critical patients to on-base shelters.

The base runway, while damaged, can still support C-17 Globemaster III and C-130 transport aircraft, the colonel said. The aircraft will help bring in relief supplies, Colonel Foss said.

Help is starting to flow into the base, she said. Teams from the Navy base at Pensacola, Fla., are flying helicopters into the base to help. The Navy, she said, will send search and rescue teams to the base. (Contributing to this report: Master Sgt. Orville Desjarlais, Air Force Print News; Lois Walsh, Eglin AFB, Fla.; and Sue Campbell, Wilford Hall Medical)

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