Hurricanes, complacency can be devastating

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Complacency is the biggest threat to Team Keesler as hurricane season begins.

Admit it - you hate the base's hurricane exercises, sheltering drills, checklists, Form 21 updates, evacuation plans and hurricane kits. But base leaders can't let complacency set in - they have to plan for a "worst case" scenario that could put lives, property and our mission at tremendous risk.

That "worst case" for Keesler was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Katrina killed at least 1,836 people and inflicted damages estimated at around $125 billion. There were no deaths at Keesler, but upwards of $500 million damage, not to mention the destruction in the surrounding community.

It's hard to explain to people who weren't here what it was like to experience one of our country's worst natural disasters. Lt. Col. Randy Coats, former commander of the 333rd Training Squadron, wrote a narrative while he was in charge of the Bryan Hall shelter. I've edited the report we ran in the Keesler News for this limited space, but it will give newcomers an idea of why we take hurricane preparations so seriously.

After seven years in jobs with "command authority" and two squadron commands, I figured I had a good idea what command was all about. I was wrong. Four words changed my mind --"Shelter Commander" and "Hurricane Katrina."

From Aug. 28- Sept. 2, I lived with 730 of my "closest friends" in 50-year-old Bryan Hall, an old nuclear fallout shelter with no windows and no shower facilities. It was my third stint as a shelter commander, but it was unlike anything I had experienced before. I've come to appreciate the unpredictability of command and how much an event like Katrina can change people and communities.

Most Keesler shelters are dedicated primarily to one unit. Mine is not. I have all the active duty and family members from a wide variety of units -- two training squadrons, CE and Security Forces (and prisoners), 100+ Marines, communications students, 150 NCO Academy students and their faculty, and 50 international officers and their families.

Aug. 25: One of my sharpest young MSgt points out Katrina "may grow into something over the weekend" and suggests we update our shelter/evacuation data sheets. I tell him "that's not a bad idea", then promptly forget to do anything because Katrina's not headed our way at all and I've got other things to do besides worry about a piddly Category 1 storm.

Aug. 27: Two CAT meetings. Katrina has strengthened and is headed our way. Tentatively plan to open shelters Monday morning. I remember the MSgt's words and begin repeating every officer's golden rule --"Never ignore a SNCO."

Aug. 28: Katrina is Category 5, taking up the whole Gulf of Mexico and headed straight for us, due to arrive before dawn Monday. 1000: Initiate full recall and order all personnel to evacuate or shelter NLT 2100. Many people out of town for the weekend. Accountability is a nightmare. 1700: Open the shelter. People told to bring food and water for three days. Most bring food for two days; smokers bring cigarettes for 20 days. Have to break the news -- no smoking inside the shelter and once you're checked in you can't go outside. 2200: Doors locked and boarded up from the outside by CE (one door in an alcove left uncovered).

Aug. 29: 0500: Winds howling; can hear them best through bathroom vents. 0800: Shelterees (hereafter referred to as "the Natives") start moving around 0800. Smokers looking for nicotine fix, but remain calm. 1000: News reports indicate rising waters, violent winds. Plywood ripped from external doorways. 1200: News reports 20+ feet of water in local mall. Natives getting anxious. Smokers getting jittery. Afternoon: Power goes out; generators kick in. A/C and ventilation fans stop working. No windows, no open doors, 731 nervous August. Smokers starting to visibly shake; many look physically ill. Cable TV goes out. Primary generator has flames coming out of it, so CE shut it off. Lost internet connectivity. Down to one generator; power only in hallways and a few rooms. Water stops running. Toilets overflowing. One hour later, water comes back thanks to CE heroes going out in the storm to repair pumping station. CE troops report half of flightline underwater; BX and Commissary 6 feet deep and rising; trees down all over base; CE building collapsed. 1800: Winds still dangerous so can't open doors. It's's humid...Natives are getting cranky. Smokers showing signs of extreme duress. Babies and young kids getting grumpy; too hot to nap. Barely-visible TV news reports massive devastation in the area. Dead silence in hallway as Natives crowd around the lone TV with a discernible picture. Tension rising. 2000: Too hot to breathe. Command Post says stay locked down, don't open doors. Cops go on shift. An NCO assigned to patrol base housing offers to try to check on my cat. 2100: Even hotter. Poked my head outside -- it's ugly but winds have died down. Command Post says stay buttoned up. Survival instincts tell me to get some air in here. Posted Marines at every exit and opened all the doors. 2200: Open a side door and rope off a 10' x 10' smoking area. No more than five people at a time; no more than five minutes.

Aug. 30: 0145: An NCO wakes me up because "Cops want to talk to you, Sir." SFS NCO is direct. "The good news is your cat is fine." As he hands back my house key he adds, "The bad news is I didn't need this to get into your house. I walked through your back wall." Spend the rest of the night thinking of how to stay focused and project a positive attitude. 0700: Bad news spreads like wildfire. Lots of supportive comments as I wander the halls but I see the struggle behind the words--they're sorry for my loss but worry about their own. Their concern for my family despite fears for their own touches me deeply. First time in 19 years I've really had to fight back tears, but I've got to do the commander thing and project a positive attitude. These people have no access to information other than what I tell them. I realize that their mood will be a direct reflection of what they perceive as my mood. I've been tested in command before, but never like this. 0800: Drive to CAT meeting across base. Devastation is shocking. Trees down everywhere. Cars trashed everywhere. Windows out. Walls out. Buildings collapsed. Roofs ripped apart. 0930: Most uncomfortable briefing I've ever given. Reports indicate widespread devastation. Death toll probably in the hundreds. Power out for at least three weeks. Must begin water conservation. Minimum three months to resume base mission. Will not leave shelter for at least three days. Stunned and scared faces focused on me. Worst possible situation for a commander--troops need reassurance I can't give. Struggle to keep my voice steady. Afternoon: - supplies running out, especially food, diapers, baby food, and feminine hygiene products. Submit urgent supply request to Command Post. Still no cable TV and no internet. Information is life. I average no more than 10 steps before someone stops me to ask what's going on outside. Pregnant Native goes into premature labor. Ambulance evacuates her to hospital. Another uncomfortable night. Set up room with lots of fans so children can sleep.

Aug. 31: 36+ hours with no A/C and no showers. Natives stink. Shelter stinks. Natives convinced everyone stinks but themselves. Tasked my most creative NCO to come up with some way to hose people off. Water hose connected to sink in bathroom supply closet, with sandbag walls leading to drain in center of bathroom. No hot water, but showers are a success. Still rationing water--3 minute shower every other day. Still hot. Two cases of dehydration evacuated to hospital. Lots of debris around the building. Still dangerous for people to go outside. Assigned a team to clear and rope off an area near the building. Post guards to ensure nobody wanders off and allow small groups outside for fresh air for short periods of time. Wing/CC reads off list of inbound aid at CAT meeting. I never imagined that it would mean so much to know that so many people are focused on helping you. Baby supplies critical. Wing/CC orders a raid on what's left of Commissary and BX. Deliveries to shelters save the day. Another bad briefing to the Natives. Only one way to explain why they can't leave the shelter--tell them the truth as I know it. Looting rampant off-base. Looters in base housing. AF member carjacked right outside the gate. No gas in local area; $5 gallon three hours away. Chaos in New Orleans is moving our way. Extra security forces en route to help secure the base. Natives frantic about their homes. They fear anything that survived the storm won't survive the looters. Try to focus them on aid headed our way.

Sept. 1: Cannot release people to return to homes overnight due to security concerns. However, must let Natives assess their homes or risk bodily harm trying to keep them here. Strict guidelines for home assessments--provide written route of travel; have a wingman; no dependents can go; max of one hour to save what you can and return to shelter; must be decontaminated before reentering shelter because many houses have sludge/sewage inches deep. Natives return to shelter. Many are homeless. Commander School never taught me how to respond to "I have nothing left," or how to comfort women and men crying uncontrollably in my arms. Some cried for what they lost, some for what they saw. News reports didn't prepare them for seeing not just their home but their entire neighborhood destroyed, or for the cops telling them the bad smell they noticed was probably neighbors who tried to ride out the storm and were buried in the rubble. I know how they feel. The stink in our house made me gag; the mud was gooey, sticky, and got on everything. The dining hall next to the shelter opens for one hot meal of whatever was available. Natives happily wait in line 2+ hours for rice with spaghetti sauce and a piece of bread. After the week we've had, it's like Grandma's Thanksgiving dinner. Third straight day of gorgeous weather. Security still a big concern. Natives don't care, they just want out. Still no A/C.

Sept. 2: Wing/CC authorizes release from shelters. Six days and five nights we will never forget, and the recovery efforts have only just begun.
To say that Hurricane Katrina has been a "life event" would be an understatement. During my time running the shelter, I saw the best and the worst of people firsthand. Most looked for opportunities to help others and to make our little slice of hell a little more comfortable. When I read their faces. I could see clearly fear change to shock, disbelief, anger. I watched as anger was replaced with a calm sense of resolve and focus to simply move forward and do what needed to be done. Every person in that shelter taught me their own unique and valuable lesson about command. The CE troops and the cops are Keesler's real heroes. I watched them tramp in and out throughout the storm and its aftermath. They were wet, muddy, sweaty, and tired, but every time they came through those doors they took time to find someone whose house they checked on and they always stopped by to give me an update on what they saw. As for the other folks in the shelter, they were just as amazing. For all but the first 16 hours of our 6-day adventure, they lived in a hot, poorly-ventilated building with virtually no amenities but running water. Most slept on tile floors. All slept in puddles of their own sweat. All spent 5 days not knowing whether or not they had a home to go home to. Yet through all of it, they kept a sense of humor and worked together to make the best of a bad situation. I have never seen a better demonstration of the military "family" or true professionalism.
What I've seen in the 12 days since has been just as impressive. The base and its leadership have been amazing. We brought training back on line in less than 3 weeks and provided critical support to local communities. At last count, we'd sent nearly 50 missions out the gates to deliver food, water, and medical support. I was the CAT director when a local cop showed up and said the shelter down the street had an outbreak of diarrhea and vomiting. The boss had medical teams, food, and water on site within 30 minutes. With more than one-third of my squadron homeless, my military and civilian troops have done things that will bring a tear to anyone's eye. Not one single person in my unit has cleaned out a storm-damaged home alone. We've had teams out every day helping squadron members and retirees cut trees and clean out flooded homes. They have made me proud to be part of their team and the US military. They taught me when it comes right down to it, they don't need leadership. They have the willingness, desire, and compassion to do the right thing without being told. They don't need a commander -- they only need a cheerleader who will give them the support and freedom to do what needs to be done. When I look back in years to come and ponder what Hurricane Katrina taught me about command, that may be the most important lesson of all.