KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
“It was pretty similar to the kind of destruction I saw during my deployments,” said Master Sgt. Jeffery Thatcher. “Highway 90 was done for, completely pushed north and none of the casinos were in the same spot.”
Thatcher, the 81st Security Forces Squadron standardizations and evaluations superintendent, wasn’t here for Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, but he sure remembers the aftermath.
Originally stationed at Keesler from 2001-2012, Thatcher was on day 55 of 60 of a temporary duty assignment to the Regional Training Center at Ft. Dix, New Jersey when Katrina hit.
“We were in the field the day before it hit but happened to be able to get lunch at one of the chow halls,” he recalls. “All the Army guys were talking about how Mississippi was going to be destroyed, and it completely caught us off guard. We found out a lot of people were evacuated, but they hadn’t called a mandatory evacuation for military members, from what I had heard.
“The next day [August 29, 2005] Katrina hit, and we had no idea what was going on,” Thatcher continued. “Between being out in the field for training and the storm taking out power and cell phone towers, we didn’t have much information and were pretty worried – who was still down there, what kind of damage was being done.”
Once they completed the course at the RTC, Thatcher and his fellow Airmen were scheduled to deploy to Baghdad for six months. Katrina changed those plans though; the RTC commander informed them their deployment was cancelled, and they were heading back to Keesler.
Now several days after Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, Thatcher and company had to find a way home.
“The Army gave us a ride to Philadelphia, where we were able to get aboard a commercial airliner,” Thatcher explained. “That got us to Destin, Florida. The Navy housed us for a couple days there, and by then we were able to get semi-regular text messages and the occasional phone call.”
“People who knew we were headed home kept asking us for beer, water and snacks,” he said while laughing.
“After we stayed a couple days with the Navy, we were able to hop on one of the Marine Corps’ Super Stallions because they were headed to Biloxi for a supply drop. We flew over the area with the cargo ramp down and got to see all the ruin from up high. I don’t want to compare it exactly to Iraq or Afghanistan, but I definitely saw similarities.”
While much of the base and surrounding area was in shambles, Thatcher was able to count himself lucky – his house in the town north east of Biloxi, Ocean Springs, suffered a ‘measly’ three inches of water damage.
“The only thing I actually lost was my truck that was parked at the squadron on base,” Thatcher said. “It was totaled from flood damage, but the bank said I could keep using it until I was able to get a new one.”
Rather than being fazed by the estimated $105 billion in damages surrounding him across the Gulf Coast, Thatcher got back to work.
Throughout the retelling of his post-Katrina experience, Thatcher never seemed to remember it as the nightmare so many do. Rather, his stories and experiences usually carry a positive note of helping those in need and recognizing the small, laughable irony of using water to solve problems caused by water with is truck.
“The guys and I knew a lot of the Biloxi cops, so we could travel around off base easily enough for supplies,” he said. “We would use my truck for supply runs of medical equipment; even though it flooded it ran alright . . . Aside from the one time it caught on fire.
“After we poured some water down the vents it ran just fine again,” he added with a laugh.
The uncomfortable beauty of downtown Biloxi wasn’t lost on Thatcher either.
“Once we were able to get into downtown Biloxi we saw what was left of the sights, and it was pretty awe-inspiring,” he admitted. “I got one of those feelings where you’re not scared, but you feel like you should be.
“I’ll never forget the old Treasure Bay Casino,” he remarked. “It was shaped like a giant pirate ship, but the storm broke it and moved it inland. At night against the moon it looked exactly like the ship from ‘The Goonies!’”
Any feelings of dread aside, as a certified combat lifesaver Thatcher found his stride helping Keesler’s makeshift hospital.
“The base hospital was extremely limited; there was one doctor and three medical techs operating out of a tent,” he said. “Two of my buddies were also certified, so we ended up running around doing medical stuff all day. Nowhere had air conditioning and everyone was packed in, so dehydration was really common. We were just walking around hooking people up to IVs.”
Thatcher’s newfound medical position extended to off base care as well.
“During our supply runs American Medical Response would give us lots of atropine,” he said. “The military uses it during chemical warfare, but it also helps heart attack patients. A lot of people were coming to the front gate for help with heart attacks, so we’d give them the atropine and let them know they needed to find a way to Mobile [Alabama] for further treatment because AMR couldn’t take them that far – it was all we could do.”
Over the next several weeks, the base started to change all around Thatcher. Civilian contractors arrived, set up tents for themselves and started demolishing buildings. PRIME BEEF and RED HORSE, Air Force civil engineer forces used for combat support and natural disaster recovery, swept in and cleared the base roads and headquarters buildings of the 81st Training Wing and 2nd Air Force.
“It was pretty surprising to see the Air Force come down, essentially give us a blank check and told us to do what we’ve got to do,” he said. “I absolutely thought we were going to get shut down, but the response the Air Force took was really impressive.”
Looking back 10 years and seeing how the Gulf Coast community has recovered and reshaped itself, Thatcher remembers how much has changed.
“This town used to be running 24/7 for as long as the casinos have been here,” he said. “After it literally dropped down to being busy from 3-5 p.m. when the Walmart was open, if they even had anything to sell. Over time hours started to increase, but for the first year nothing was back to normal.”
At the end of it all, Thatcher doesn’t have bad memories of his post-Katrina time at Keesler. Rather, it’s something to look back at and take valuable experiences from, but ultimately move on from.
With a laugh and a smile, Thatcher made a final observation on Hurricane Katrina – “I would’ve rather gone on deployment.”