I recently had the opportunity to visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast and speak at a Hurricane Katrina +10 Anniversary event. The event is part of a six month examination of the catastrophic destruction, immediate relief, sustained recovery, shared experience, and progress on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina striking southern Mississippi.
Early in the summer of 2005, my family and I were notified that we would be moving to Keesler Air Force Base. I remember watching TV in our home at Scott Air Force Base as Hurricane Katrina entered the Gulf… and wondering what was going to happen with our assignment. I cringe even today as I recall seeing the whole gulf shadowed by Katrina’s massive cloud cover.
Hurricane Katrina was a storm for the record books. On 24 August, Katrina was a mere tropical storm off the coast of the Bahamas. But on the 29th of August, Mother Nature unleased her full fury on the Mississippi gulf coast as a Category 3 hurricane, with sustained winds up to 140 MPH. Despite its destruction, chaos, and tragedy, the story of the recovery of the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been nothing less than borderline mythical. It was truly the Phoenix rising out of the ashes.
Laura, Claire and I arrived in November 2005 to a base that felt like a ghost town. Though pristine, the hustle and bustle of a major Air Force installation was missing. If you didn’t know it, you would have never guessed Katrina inflicted over $950 million dollars in damage across the base.
Major General Bill Lord and his team had done a magnificent job riding out the storm and getting the base back on its feet. In most cases, the brick and mortar withstood the winds of the storm. The flooding on the other hand left mere shells of buildings. During the storm, 75 percent of the base was underwater.
Operation Dragon Comeback is the recovery story of Keesler Air Force Base. This story is not one of brick and mortar. Rather, it is a story of people — families, neighbors, friends, volunteers, and concerned citizens across the globe who came together in the face of adversity, looked destruction in the eyes and said, “Not today.”
It is also a story of leadership and vision. People like Senator Trent Lott, Senator Thad Cochran, Governor Haley Barbour, Congressman Gene Taylor, and Mayor AJ Holloway come to mind, as well as many local and community leaders too numerous to mention.
As I look back, my proudest memories surround the work of our nation’s Airmen (military, civilian and contractors alike) – they are my heroes. Stories of Team Keesler, who in most cases lost everything during the storm. These heroes recorded over 65,000 volunteer hours outside the gate, rebuilding our communities during the first year of the recovery effort. This humanitarian effort equated to over $1.5 million of labor costs.
Stories about our Airmen, who despite the rebuilding process, continued to support our nation’s call to duty to win the war on terror. Despite recovery efforts on the home front, Keesler Airmen continued to deploy to fight for our freedom across the globe.
Natural disasters are often the cause for military bases to close or transfer missions, yet Keesler continues to thrive today. Keesler’s selection as the Commander-in-Chief’s Installation Excellence Award for 2013 overwhelmingly proves this point. I would like to believe the Katrina recovery efforts played a large role in this accomplishment, as I can think of no other installation who has replaced its total base infrastructure in almost its entirety over the last ten years.
The story of Operation Dragon Comeback and the recovery efforts of the Mississippi Gulf Coast is one to celebrate. It is the standard to which all others should follow during disaster and recovery efforts.
It is also a story which has come full circle. The resilience of the base and its communities over the past 10 years has paid great dividends. According to the Harrison County Development Commission, Keesler Air Force Base is the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s largest employer, with more than 11,300 military and civilian employees and with a total economic impact of $1.1 billion a year.
It is a great story, one everyone at Keesler AFB should be very proud of. Laura and I are proud to say our assignment to Keesler AFB is the best assignment we had during our Air Force career.
The Empower and Protect Blog brings you cybersecurity and information technology insights from top industry experts at Telos.