Staff Sgt. Reneé Johnson, left, 81st Training Support Squadron, and Tech. Sgt. Betty Love, right, 334th Training Squadron, welcome World War II veteran Evelynn Whittaker to her new home Monday. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue)
Navy retiree Floyd Astin is assisted by Staff Sgt. Kimberly Coleman, 81st Aerospace Medicine Squadron, as he signs up for cable access in his room at the AFRH with Lisa Millfelt, Cable One sales representative. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue)
Master Sgt. Kevin Scharwath, 81st Logistics Readiness Squadron first sergeant, carries a television for Garland Clifton, an Air Force retiree who'll be living at the AFRH. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue)
10/6/2010 - GULFPORT, Miss. -- Armed Forces Retirement Home residents expected to be displaced for only a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina damaged their facility in 2005. The first 126 veterans returned home five years later to a larger and more lavish facility.
The residents lived at the AFRH's Washington D.C., facility for much of the past five years. Bill Williams, an Air Force veteran, was the first to enter the gate Sept. 4, after driving from Washington in his recreational vehicle.
"It's great to be back home," Mr. Williams said. "I felt very privileged to have spent the past couple of years in our nation's capital, but I feel like I'm back in my element. I was born and raised in the South."
The Gulfport facility evacu-ated 416 residents Aug. 30, 2005, after Katrina destroyed several buildings and the steel and concrete perimeter around the facility. More than 400 residents stayed in the structure during the hurricane.
Mr. Williams was one of 41 residents who drove home, while the other 85 arrived by airplane to scores of people who greeted them with American flags at the airport. About 100 school children lined an access road outside the retirement home gate with flags and hand-drawn signs to welcome the veterans.
More than 90 more residents arrive by Oct. 15, and another 125 arrive on an Oct. 25 flight, said Sheil Abarr, AFRH public affairs officer. Another 10 residents will be moved from area assisted living centers Nov. 2 before the official opening and an all-day celebration called "Glory on the Gulf" Nov. 8.
"For the residents who lived here, this was their home," Ms. Abarr said. "They were displaced within a 24-hour period to never see their room again, although we had everything shipped up there to them. We didn't even start moving their stuff out of the facility until about eight months in. "What we tried to do as an agency was make them a part of the process, for them tobuild their home. They have been involved, from looking at blueprints to going through mock-ups of their rooms, so they could put a hand at going back into their home."
The $187 million, 800,000 square-foot facility has four eight-floor towers and 582 rooms. The rooms are larger than in the previous facility and have kitchenettes and showers.
There's also a wellness center, indoor bocce court, bowling alley, Nintendo Wii stations, pool tables, swimming pool and hobby shops.
"You can look at pictures, but to walk in with residents when they walk into their rooms for the first time, and a couple of them had tears in their eyes because they were home," Ms. Abarr said. "I told them it's a very grateful nation because this was an aappropriation. We consider our veterans our heroes, but for them to walk into their rooms for the first time was what was special."