Airman attempts to rebuild life after Hurricane Katrina

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Erin Tindell
  • 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The eye of a storm is a quiet, calm place. Sunlight flickers in the raindrops collected on blades of grass. Branches gently sway in a light breeze. In an instant, chaos returns and the storm rages on again.

The year since Hurricane Katrina hit has been a personal storm for thousands of people filled with times of peace and times of chaos. After the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history hit, most of the attention focused on victims in the New Orleans area. Victims in Gulfport, Miss., including Airmen stationed at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., were seemingly ignored.

One of those Airmen, now at Mountain Home AFB, recounted her experiences with the hurricane and her family's struggle to return to a normal life.

"Our whole life disappeared in one day," said 1st Lt. Dawn Clifton as she recalled the destruction of her home in Ocean Springs, Miss. A nurse with the 366th Medical Operations Squadron, Lieutenant Clifton and her family, including husband, Tracy, and sons Blake, 12, and Brock, 6, were displaced here from Keesler AFB last winter.

"We've gone through every stage of grief you can go through. Everybody keeps telling us it's going to get better, but every day we face the loss," she said.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit, the Cliftons didn't think much about the storm, initially predicted to head west toward Texas. But it suddenly changed course Aug. 27, 2005, and headed toward the central Gulf Coast, causing a mandatory evacuation for the area. The Cliftons boarded up their three-bedroom home and put valuables in rubber containers just in case there was a small flood when they returned.

They evacuated to Tallahassee, Fla., where they watched news coverage of the unparalled events unfold. A few days later, a friend phoned them and told them the heart-breaking news that their home and everything they left behind were ruined.

When they were finally allowed to return to the area three weeks later, the family wasn't prepared to witness the level of devastation the storm left behind.

"We walked around in shock for about two weeks," Lieutenant Clifton said. "We were surrounded by debris and the smell of death. There were dead animals and garbage everywhere. Anything you can think of was probably lying outside. The air was of very poor quality for a long time."

Lieutenant Clifton was called back to the 81st Medical Group hospital at Keesler AFB, where she worked as a labor and delivery nurse. The base suffered more than $950 million in damage, and the second largest hospital in the Air Force had to shut down most of its services, including its medical residency program for students.

Off base, the Cliftons were forced to live in one of more than 40,000 trailers the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up for families left homeless by the storm.

"Initially, we thought everything would be OK because we knew our insurance company would pay for everything, and we could settle somewhere else," she said. But like thousands of other victims, their insurance company didn't pay, and their whole world collapsed, she said.

Because the Cliftons lived off base, they weren't provided much aid. The base community was only able to provide the disadvantaged family with $500 through the Air Force Aid Society.

"The $500 helped at first because we didn't have access to any banks. Luckily, we had savings and were able to provide for our children. Our children didn't have to go without anything; that was the biggest worry for us," she said, wiping away tears.

After three months of living in turmoil, Lieutenant Clifton was transferred to Mountain Home AFB as 90 percent of the Keesler hospital staff was dispersed to other installations to continue working.

Currently, the family lives on base and attempts to reclaim their lives. Lieutenant Clifton said it's difficult to face the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina because it forces her to relive her family's loss.

"I try not to talk about it in front of the children, but they know how hard it is for us. We have a financial burden that will take a long time to get rid of. To go from having perfect credit to having bill collectors call every day about payments is tough," she said.

The children also suffered losses.

"I lost all of my best friends," Blake said. A few seconds of silence go by as he tries to fight off tears in front of his mother.

"It's OK to cry," she said to him, a moment ago crying herself.

Brock lost the only house he's known. The Cliftons built their house a year before Brock was born.

The family also went from a two-income household to one because Mr. Clifton hasn't been able to find a job in his career field here.

"It's very frustrating for him because he wants to do more for the family," said Lieutenant Clifton.

However, the Cliftons take comfort in the few silver linings that exist in their personal storm.

"We're thankful everyone is alive," said Lieutenant Clifton. "If we didn't follow the evacuation order and stayed in our house, we wouldn't be alive today. There's no way."

Some of the people living in the trailers with the Cliftons lost much more. Some lost their jobs, some lost their family members or friends.

"At least we still had each other," she said.

Today, the Cliftons continue their life as a renewed family who take little value in material things and more in each other. They hang onto hope that a Mississippi grant will be approved to pay off the mortgage for their destroyed home.

Lieutenant Clifton also hangs onto hope for the restoration of the area she grew to love.

"I hope the Gulf Coast can one day spring back to what it was before. It was a great place to raise a family. It was a great place to live," she said.