KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
“I did come to a point where I did go back and check on the lady I first gave water to,” Watkins remembered. “She was just so thankful for me giving her water that she said ‘There’s still nice people here.’ I just looked at her and said ‘We all have to help each other now.’”
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and its residents in August 2005, small things like clean water were often the most cherished.
Now, 10 years later, Al Watkins, the 81st Infrastructure Division chief of operations, looks back at his efforts to help restore his beloved base and the surrounding area while doing what he knows best . . . helping people.
After a long 48 hours of preparation and waiting, Katrina hit ground and quickly flooded several areas near on the Gulf Coast, including Keesler. Even with the flood waters rising, Watkins and his crew knew they still had to keep clean and sustainable water flowing to those in the shelters.
Keeping a watchful eye on the water pressure while sheltered in their work area, the crew was prepared to spring into action and go out into the storm even if it meant going against the recommendations of base leadership.
“We saw that the water pressure was dropping really low,” said Watkins. “We had 10 operable water wells, but only one well was on automatic transfer which means when we lose power it automatically transfers to a generator. The remaining nine had to be physically switched over.
“The commander at the time said that he couldn’t let us go out into the storm but I told him that if we lose water we are done,” he stressed.
“The only way that we can be here is if we have clean water,” he continued. “We already had five to six feet of water and it was still rising. Myself and a chief master sergeant in my shop went out and started switching the power over to bring the water wells back up.”
Watkins and his crew got their truck ready and headed into the storm. Just a few hours in, flood waters were rising and the wind speed was picking up into triple digits. Although the dangerous situation put the fear into the eyes of Watkins, he didn’t give up hope.
“We are talking over 100 miles per hour winds,” said Watkins. “We were sitting in a dominator truck, which sits 10 feet off the ground. We knew we were going through high waters and that’s when it became really scary. At first I was thinking ‘we got this,’ but when you start driving through high waters it becomes a different story. We had to get to the water wells and switch them over.”
Most buildings had flooded, leaving their contents destroyed. Some one-story buildings, like those in base housing, were completely filled with water. Seeing the extent of the flooding just on base made Watkins go into disbelief.
“We could only see half of the commissary because of the flooding,” said Watkins. “Then it was on fire where the salt water started getting into the electrical wiring. At the hospital everything in the basement and first floor flooded. The generators flooded, so there was no power. When you start seeing all of this it affects you to a point where you can’t really believe it. We knew we were going to get damage but we didn’t think it would be this bad.
“I’ve been through several hurricanes but never the flooding that came with Katrina,” he continued. “It messes with you psychologically because you start wondering about those who weren’t prepared.
“It was pretty scary,” he added.
Watkins and his crew started getting reports about damage off base once they were back to their shop. Major roadways and bridges were completely out of order.
He decided to go to off base housing to assess the damage done there. In Oak Park Housing he met one of the most memorable people from his journey through Hurricane Katrina.
“One of the civilians was out trying to clean up her house and she turned to me and said ‘Sir, I know you aren’t supposed to, but can I have some water?’” said Watkins. “She had back bay mud all over her. Her skin and clothes were just black. She just wanted some water to clean herself off.”
Noticing that the other housing residents were gone, Watkins grabbed some water hoses and put them together to get her water to clean the mud off of herself.
“She just sat there and teared up. That’s when I knew that we had to do something. It touched me so much that we went to each housing area off base and built manifolds where we tapped into the water main, brought a line up and put a series of taps with hoses on them so people could come get water for free. Helping that lady is one of the things I will always remember.”
Later, Watkins got a call to report to the command post. It was the wing commander and he wanted to see him.
“A rep from FEMA wanted to talk to me,” said Watkins. “He asked me what our water capacity was; at the time we had 2.4 million gallons in storage. He said we needed to start filling tanker trucks with water to send to the surrounding communities, Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
Watkins and his team quickly started filling up the trucks that hold more than 5,000 gallons of water. They worked around the clock for two weeks filling trucks for delivery to surrounding communities to get their water systems up and running to the state’s standards. Working for 12-hour shifts, each member of the nine-person team ensured that residents of Southern Mississippi had clean and sustainable water to make it through the aftermath of the storm.
The small but determined team worked through the nights on limited amounts of sleep.
“It took about three weeks before we were able to get four hours straight of sleep,” said Watkins. “I slept in my shop for two months and by the time I would close my eyes we would get a call about about a gas break or need help with the water – we were constantly going.
“It can take a toll on you but when you know people are depending on you it really instills a push,” he continued. “You want to say that you are tired and don’t want to go on any more but when you think of the people who are relying on you, you tap into something that is hard for me to put into words. You just go.”
Watkins’ love for his Gulf Coast community is one motivation that keeps him going through the hard times.
“The community here is very important to me,” said Watkins. “I’ve lived here for 18 years and bought a home here. It’s my community. To have Keesler and the Air Force here to support my community during the hard times is amazing.”
Underneath all of the responsibilities he has had at Keesler and his military experience, lays the heart of a man who strives to help everyone around him. Reflecting on his early childhood, Watkins attributes this feeling to his father and his upbringing.
“It has to be something from inside,” said Watkins. “Having a father who would literally give someone the shirt off his back has made me want to help people whenever they are in need. If you go into life wanting to help folks without looking for anything in return it’s much more rewarding. That feeling that I got giving water to the lady off base, money couldn’t buy that feeling.
“It’s a feeling inside that makes you feel so good that you can walk tall,” he added. “I think if a limb hit me on my head I would just keep smiling because I know I made a difference. When you make a difference in someone’s life it is just a feeling that is indescribable.”