Vance Airmen help Keesler, south get back on feet

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Amanda Mills
  • Public Affairs
Following the nation's recent landfall of Category 3 and 4 hurricanes, Americans have pulled together to get Mississippi and Louisiana back on their feet.
Hurricane Katrina targeted Gulf Coast regions in late August, breaking New Orleans levees and flooding several areas, including Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. Three weeks later, Hurricane Rita narrowly missed the same area, making landfall near the coastal border of Texas and Louisiana.
Four Vance Airmen were part of helping Keesler and its surrounding areas clean up the devastation and tell stories of recovery and American bravery.
Lt. Col. Marla Buckles, 71st Medical Operations Squadron, Tech. Sgt. Brian White, 71st Flying Training Wing legal office, and Staff Sgt. Toriano Banks, 71st Comptroller Squadron, deployed to Keesler. Second Lt. Nicole Poff, 71st Flying Training Wing public affairs, deployed to Camp Shelby, Miss.
As representatives from different career fields, the deployed Airmen's assistance varied.
Colonel Buckles was asked to join a medical team from Sheppard AFB, Texas, as one of only two female providers on the team. Together they left for Keesler where they worked out of an emergency medical station that had been set up in the medical group parking lot six days following Hurricane Katrina.
"Our entire deployed team consisted of 46 people from Sheppard and six from Luke (AFB, Ariz.)," Colonel Buckles said. "Our primary job was to initially relieve the Keesler medics who had been working for more than eight days straight, performing primary acute relief for active duty, family members and base contractors."
Limited supplies were available, but fortunately Keesler had a deployable EMEDS that the team used in place of the unserviceable hospital. Preventing infection was their biggest concern, the colonel said.
Sergeant White was sent by way of Maxwell AFB, Ala., to Keesler, where he performed initial damage assessments on more than 1,100 housing units and 300 vehicles.
"We documented everything from no water damage at all to water over the tops of door jambs in the homes, taking photos of everything," he said. "Because people were still evacuated, we actually only took two claims, which awarded $44, 866.38 for household goods and $500 for the vehicle insurance deductible."
Sergeant White and the deployed legal team helped begin the claims process for other Keesler members by providing their documentation. They created a database with tabs for each of the five housing areas and listed the addresses numerically. Families could then access this database from a military computer, clicking the link to their address for the damage assessment and photos.
After the evacuation ceased, Sergeant Banks deployed directly to Keesler to collect and process evacuation vouchers.
"When everyone was ordered to evacuate the base, as soon as they left they were considered on temporary duty status," he said. "When they returned they were entitled to some type of reimbursement."
The finance team collected more than 3,000 vouchers, totaling more than $4.5 million.
As a public affairs officer for Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, Joint Task Force Katrina commander, Lieutenant Poff helped spread the word of military actions to help the south. After reporting to Maxwell and then driving to Camp Shelby three days after the hurricane, she consolidated media requests already pouring in and began to set up interviews and appearances for the general.
"I also performed the evening shift change brief at the joint operations center, updating the commanders on major headlines and media interviews for the day, talking points and what interviews were coming in the future," Lieutenant Poff said. She also prepared General Honoré's evening book of daily articles from media sources such as the USA Today and the Washington Post, including editorials and cartoons that expressed the attitude of the local area, Washington, D.C. and the rest of the world.
None were prepared for the devastation that met them when they arrived. All four believe just as much damage was caused by trees as by water, but their thoughts of the damage to the south is as different as their duties there.
"I was shocked by how brown everything was - they have huge pine and oak trees there and the needles and leaves were just stripped right off them," Colonel Buckles said. "When I think of Mississippi, I see lush green, but what I actually saw looked more like west Texas during a drought. There was also no wildlife - no birds or even mosquitoes. Only at the end of our time there did we finally see one little squirrel and raccoon."
The colonel was also shocked by how little people in the shelters had planned.
"No one was prepared to shelter for more than three days. Keesler only had plans for conditions like they experienced during Hurricane Camille (in 1969)," she said. "One man even came to me asking for more medicine, because he had only filled a pill counter with three days' worth of his prescriptions. It was a real wake-up call."
Sergeant White noticed two extremes.
"Parts of the base had no damage or maybe just a few shingles off of a roof, while another side had homes that were just completely leveled or had three or four inches of mud in them and water damage as high as eight feet," he said. "In one home, we saw a refrigerator that had been picked up and set back down on the cabinets.
"I was really shocked by the amount of devastation overall. We walked into these homes that appeared to be structurally sound, but when we unlocked the door and walked in, you could see the water level reached over the doors and you wondered, 'How did it get in?'"
Sergeant Banks was thankful the base lodging building was functional, because many were not.
"It was a good thing we were able to stay in billeting, but a lot of other important buildings, like the commissary and exchange were destroyed. The damage off base was even worse," he said.
But the loss shocked Sergeant Banks most.
"A lot of people stationed here and in the area lost most of their things," he said. "Being here, before I deployed, I didn't realize just how bad it was. But a lot of people lost everything."
At Camp Shelby, Lieutenant Poff also noticed the difference in the damage on and off base.
"Trees were down everywhere and there was little to no power on the post," she said. "Everywhere you walked it was like someone walked around just snapping trees off at the bottom. But it was nothing in comparison to what you saw further south. Stores were still closed weeks afterward and gasoline, even two hours inland, was limited to 15 gallons, with a lot of stations with signs saying they had no gas."
Still, her biggest shocker was during a trip to New Orleans.
"I had to go to New Orleans one day to take the general some props for a media interview," she said. "It was still about a week before Hurricane Rita so most of the water had been drained from the area so it wasn't as awful as it was at first. But the most shocking thing for me, even though I've never been to New Orleans, was that when I got downtown and I realized I was in a major American city but there was not a soul there except for military people. It was like a ghost town. The 'party' city of America and there was nobody there."
Back at Vance, after witnessing the losses of others the four Airmen are reminded of all they have and are thankful for their experiences.
"I was really happy for the opportunity," Colonel Buckles said. "I think we all felt special for the privilege to help others when they needed it most."
"It definitely felt good to help and be part of something the world will remember," Sergeant White said.
The experience was an honor for Sergeant Banks. "It was tough, but an honor and very worth it."
"Just being there, working with General Honoré and telling the amazing stories of people stepping up and assisting or those overcoming their losses to help, is what I'll remember," Lieutenant Poff said.