KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
As the head of theater contracts during a deployment to Baghdad in 2005, George Budz had a lot to take care of. While traveling throughout Iraq and Afghanistan to fulfill his duties, the then-lieutenant colonel didn’t think he had to worry if his house would still be in one piece and his possessions in their places when he returned home.
For Budz, now the 81st Contracting Squadron director of business operations, the last few weeks of his 2005 deployment were spent wondering if Hurricane Katrina had wiped everything out.
When Hurricane Katrina struck Keesler and the surrounding Gulf Coast, the Air Force cut Budz’s deployment short; he needed to be back home to help with the rebuilding process.
“I had some time before I left for home to watch the TV,” said Budz. “I remember being upset because I knew there was going to be a big change to my home, family and friends.”
After a week of waiting downrange for his orders to process, so he could go home, Budz’s first big post-Katrina challenge was actually traveling home.
“They didn’t know what to do with all the people coming home; didn’t know how to get me back,” he said. “What airport do I fly into? What do I do with my weapon? I ended up flying into Texas, then over to Atlanta and drove to McComb, Mississippi where my family had evacuated. My family was there for 11 days without power; we finally got back to base about a week after the storm.”
Budz had seen previews of the destruction he was driving into all around him as he made his way back to Keesler. Paying $6 per gallon of gas in Atlanta was just the beginning of what he’d come to deal with in the aftermath.
“The storm was worse than anything my team could have prepared for,” Budz said of his contracting team as they worked in the shelter during his absence. “They had their kits, laptops and flashlights but they were getting worked to death; only four people on my team had stayed to weather the storm. My senior master sergeant at the time did an amazing job keeping things going until I got back, they really pulled it off.”
Once back in place as the 81st CONS commander, Budz didn’t have an opportunity to take rest and relaxation leave, as is normally allotted military personnel returning from deployment. He had to help get the base back up and running, despite losing his house and many of his possessions.
“I hadn’t seen my family in almost six months,” he said. “My house was on commander’s row, on the very edge by the water. The whole back of the house was gone. One car was still there, inside my house with my lawnmower underneath it. The shed in the backyard was long gone, everything either scattered down the block or missing. I’d find my stuff three or four houses down from where we lived, but pretty much anything metal was ruined from the salt water. We had to salvage what we could and move on.”
Moving on meant Budz and his family had to find a new place to live and adjust their routines, because even the most mundane activities couldn’t be done the same way.
“We bought a house with a pine tree through the roof; the floors were damaged from all the water that came in – it’s all we could buy,” he said. The simple things like driving your kids to school became a task. The bridge was out so a 20-minute drive was now an hour drive. My kids love sports, but the fields were ruined and the overhead lights were all bent over from the storm. You don’t realize how important that stuff is until you don’t have it.”
While Budz and his family worked to restore their lives, he was also hard at work creating contracts to facilitate the recovery effort.
Because the 81st CONS building took too much wind and water damage from Katrina, Budz and his crew were moved to the old Cody Hall, which was condemned but still usable. They got to work building and collecting construction contracts to clean up, rebuild and refit Keesler.
After almost a year things were getting back to normal, from a structural perspective, Budz said. From an emotional perspective however, progress wasn’t quite so evident.
“Lots of people lost everything; there was a general sadness all around the community,” he said. “From an emotional standpoint we weren’t better. There was this sadness about how things would never be the same again.”
Despite the emotional damage caused by the storm, Budz saw a resiliency within the people around him.
“People weren’t complaining,” he said. “We had lots of plans and processes, but a storm like Katrina isn’t something you can truly plan for. . . . I think we even surprised the Air Force with how we were able to bounce back.”
Throughout all the rebuilding, Budz rarely had time to process everything around him and grieve.
“I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this, but I had to get the grieving process over quickly,” he admitted. “I was in Baghdad, in the contracting office, and I had started to see some of the destruction on TV. I was basically hiding in an office, breaking up and feeling sorry for myself. But I had to get over it and get back. I had had my few hours of feeling sorry for George.”
Within a year Budz and the rest of Keesler’s personnel had the hospital and 81st TRG back up and running, but ‘up and running’ wasn’t the case with many other parts of the coast.
“It’s very green here, we used to have lots of beautiful flowers and trees,” he said. “Everything was just stripped, trees were sticks, the ground was barren and the beaches were destroyed. Visually, that was hard to look at when you’re used to how beautiful it is down here.”
Looking back 10 years, Budz said it feels like it’s been longer.
“I don’t like thinking about it, it was a very negative time in my life,” he admitted. “I’m proud of what we did to get it back, but from an enjoying life perspective I don’t ever want to do it again.”
Living in the same pine tree-damaged house he bought after the storm, Budz recognizes the memories are still present and some positives came from the storm – buildings on base are elevated higher and important equipment is stored in safer positions – but he’d prefer to move on.
“I finally finished installing porcelain floor tiles in my house,” Budz said. “If we get another storm I can just mop out the water instead of replacing the whole floor next time.”
Whether it’s more safely-elevated generators in the hospital or old-fashioned home improvement, Budz knows that the damaged caused by Katrina helped Keesler become the base it is today.
“You can never be fully prepared, but some things here are better because of the storm,” he concluded.