Airman Portraits: Resilient family deals with multiple disasters

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Greg Biondo
  • 81st Training Wnig Public Affairs
Eight years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Disheveled and abandoned buildings, like skeletons from a time some would rather forget, line the coast. For others such as Julianne Bocek, they are a testament to her family's drive and resiliency when things appear to be at their worst.

"Being an Air Force family, I think, prepares you for a certain amount of resiliency," said Bocek, a program manager with 2nd Air Force. "When you have things in your life that happen like Hurricane Katrina, you draw on those strengths from being uprooted, experiencing change, and you use those. So I think that's what our family did -- we pulled together. We had to."

Bocek and her husband Tom, a retired senior master sergeant, didn't start their preparation for Katrina like most people. They were training in Alaska the Friday before the storm hit when they first saw the massive hurricane on the news. Knowing they had to get back immediately, they caught the only available flight back home -- the last flight into Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.

"We went home, and our son, who was 16 at the time, had been staying with friends," Bocek recalled. "We had called him ahead of time; he was getting the boards out to board up the windows. Every time I passed a TV set, it (Katrina) kept getting bigger, so I would put more stuff in the car and everybody says, 'Ah, Mom, you're overreacting,' and I said, 'Well I'm in charge of the department of worry, so I'm going to make sure we have everything.'"

The family packed up what they could, a few irreplaceable antiques, shadow boxes and important papers and continued to prepare their house for the storm.

"We had been through a few hurricanes before, and Ivan hit the year before, and when it spun up we were actually more prepared. We had packed up a lot more mementos and things in the van and taken them to high ground," Bocek said. "Then we had a couple other ones after Ivan, different ones that would spin up and then they'd spin down. And so on the Gulf Coast, we became complacent."

By the time the Boceks decided to evacuate, it was almost too late. Traffic was at a standstill and because they had gotten back late from Alaska, there was no gas to be found in the area. The closest available hotel was in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the chance of making it there before the storm hit was slim. They decided the best course of action would be to consolidate everything in one vehicle and park the others at their church.

When they got to the church, their pastor asked how their situation was, as they just got back in town. Tom explained the situation and then asked the pastor if the family could ride the storm out there, said Bocek.

The pastor said, "Well, you can't really stay in the sanctuary, however, if I happen to leave the fellowship hall unlocked and you became caretakers of the church, I don't think God would have a problem with that."

"So we rode out the storm in the church and the church basically took care of us, and we took care of the church," Bocek said.

With its 125 mph winds, massive storm surge and heavy rains, Katrina pummeled the coast. The Boceks watched as the building next to the church came apart, but miraculously, their place of refuge held together.

"The windows were bowing so much from the wind that water was pouring down into the entry foyer," she said. "The whole thing was very surreal -- you just feel like you're in a dream."

Bocek said once the winds were below 75 mph, the family decided to venture out and see what was going on. So, on the evening of Aug. 29, they set off to find out what was left of their home.

"We made it halfway through D'Iberville; water was lapping up and down the street, and in the distance all you could see was water," Bocek said. "About that time, a volunteer fire department guy said there's a curfew in place and once it's dark you need to be back -- it's a thousand dollar fine.'"

Not being able to make it to their house that night, the Boceks decided they would try again in the morning.

"We try one way and can't get in the neighborhood because it's just houses and debris all across the road," she said. "We go another direction and park our truck because there's no farther going with a four-wheel-drive truck."

A house blocked their path, sitting in the middle of the road as if someone had picked it up and cast it aside. They decided to hike in. What should have been a 20-minute walk turned into an almost two hour trek through debris and remnants of homes. The sight sparked memories in Bocek's mind of the time they lost their home in Texas to flooding and had to shovel mud out of the first floor.

"So as we're hiking in, I'm complaining that I hate shoveling mud -- I shoveled mud for three weeks," she said. "We start coming across some people who are coming off the side streets and they're saying, 'Have you seen my grandmother?' And they have pictures. 'Have you seen my brother?' And all of a sudden, shoveling mud wasn't really that important -- it wasn't really that big of a deal anymore. You put what's important into perspective."

As the Boceks make their way through the shells of what used to be people's lives and homes, they tried to stay positive.

"We hike through the old family cemetery that's right beside our neighborhood, and we come around the corner. We see our slab and my husband looks at me and he says, 'Hey baby, you don't have to shovel any mud,' and we all start laughing," she said. "Our 16-year-old son was pretty traumatized by the whole thing and said, 'This is not funny guys -- the house is gone.'"

The Langley Point neighborhood had 67 homes before Katrina hit; afterwards, it had 67 concrete slabs.

"I didn't cry -- we actually were in a little bit of shock probably, but we decided that we'd kind of start picking up what we could find," Bocek said.

Being an Air Force retiree, her husband was no stranger to crisis response. His instinct to take care of his family and to survive kicked in. He went out to find shelter, but the storm had blown out all of the windows on any motor homes that would have been available. He set up a command post of sorts with a board that listed emergency contact numbers.

The Bocek family's slab became the hub for recovery operations at Langley Point.

"Tom contacted a few of the folks he knew, and Keesler sent out about 160 people," she said. "Students, military training leaders and folks from the base came out and helped clean up Langley Point, and helped people find things. They were fantastic."

It wasn't only the help in the form of manual labor that aided the Boceks and the community.

"Sometimes it's not even just helping clean up or helping find things -- it's that hug when you need it," Bocek said in a soft tone. "The words of encouragement like, 'Hey, everything's going to be OK,' especially when you don't think it's going to be. So that's how the military helped us."

In Katrina's aftermath, while families tried to get their lives back together and regain a sense of direction in an upside-down world, other problems arose. Looting became a real issue and a sense of lawlessness spread through the area.

"Tom told one looter to stop and leave the neighborhood," Bocek said. "The looter later returned and when he was told to leave again he opened fire and shot at Tom."

As the infrastructure struggled to get back on its feet in the months following the storm, the Boceks needed to figure out what their next step would be.

"Langley Point was basically forgotten, and they didn't come by to pick up trash or debris or anything. We started having problems with rats, and it was really getting bad out there," she said. "We decided since Keesler was going to stay open, I still had a job and we would make a go of it. We would stay in Mississippi."

The family moved just north of Biloxi to the Woolmarket community, but as fate would have it, tragedy followed them there as well.

Doctors detected a mass on her liver and had to run tests to see if it was cancerous. Around the same time, an electrical fire in the wall caused them to lose 70 percent of their new home only seven months after Katrina.

"That was March 2006 -- had just moved into the new house, just gotten our new furniture and thought we had closure," she said. "We all sat on the back porch together, and we prayed and said, 'God, if you just let the PET scan come back negative for cancer, we'll take care of the rest -- that's all that matters.'"

Bocek's scan came back negative for cancer, so the family could focus on once again rebuilding their life. Finding a contractor was a difficult task in n the months that followed Katrina. The one they did find kept demanding more money, even though his work kept failing all housing inspections. After refusing to pay, the contractor left town, leaving his workers without pay as well, Bocek said.

They decided to rebuild their house on their own. With help from their church, local and military community, the Boceks were able to bounce back from yet another seemingly hopeless situation.

"We have rebuilt the house, both our kids have graduated from college, they're doing well and my husband and I are giving back to the community again, and volunteering," she said. "It's come full circle."

"It's an interesting experience to go through. I wouldn't wish it upon my worst enemy, but I think we're stronger for it. And I do think resiliency is something we need to stress with our military families," Bocek said. "You can bounce back from bad things. When things happen in your life that take you by surprise and you just think there is no way to make it through this, that resiliency kicks in -- there's something deep within."