Hurricane Katrina: A Look Back

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Greg Biondo
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs

A lone figure stands in the midst of scattered remnants of what was once a family’s home. Memories, now garbage and debris, cover the earth as far as the eye can see in all directions. The repulsive smell of rotten bananas and dead chickens cuts through the stifling summer air from a destroyed ship yard. Biloxi Mississippi, home of Keesler Air Force Base, was truly Hell on Earth directly following Hurricane Katrina--the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history.

This is the scene Master Sgt. Jeff Stack, a loadmaster with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, and countless other Gulf Coast residents found themselves in after the storm made landfall Aug. 29, 2005. 


The 53rd WRS, also known as the Hurricane Hunters, circled above in their WC-130J as warm ocean water, low level moisture and light winds converged over the Atlantic to create the tropical disturbance that would become Hurricane Katrina. During those first few days the storm didn’t appear to be anything substantial.

“The first time I flew Katrina was before it was named,” Stack recalls. “We had flown it like two or three days in a row as it was slowly moving north to north west. It didn’t look like much.”

Almost as if trying to prove something to the Hurricane Hunters, the storm began to strengthen.

“I actually was on the flight that got it [Katrina] named,” he said. “Looking down on Miami and Ft. Lauderdale as the eye was coming over that area, it was kind of neat. I was like, I guess this thing did build up a little bit--we had no idea that it was going to go across Florida and become the Category 5 monster that it was.”

Stack would get one final bird’s eye view of the storm before it made landfall. He describes the event as just an ‘ordinary’ flight into a hurricane with turbulence and lighting flashing around the plane.

“My last flight into Katrina was when it was a Category 3 as it was hitting the Gulf [of Mexico],” he said. “Honestly at that point it wasn’t super intense, it wasn’t really a memorable storm.”

Contrary to what the crew believed, the storm continued to intensify causing the Hurricane Hunters and remaining aircraft to evacuate from Keesler.

On August 28, Katrina reached Category 5 status with wind speeds of up to 175 miles per hour.

That same morning, Stack, now suffering from a sinus infection was unable to leave with the planes so he stayed behind to help the rest of the squadron evacuate in preparation for the storm.

“I was one of the last six people in the building getting the last plane evacuated,” he said. “The majority of the evacuees in the local area had already driven out, so surprisingly the roads were empty when I left at about 4:30 on Sunday afternoon.”

The Gulf Coast, usually teeming with activity, was a ghost town by the time Stack was able to leave.

“It was really eerie driving down Highway 90,” he recalls. “There were no cars. It was as if you could tell something was coming. It was just – silence.”    

That was the last time he would see his home and the iconic Gulf Coast shoreline as he originally knew it as he drove to safety.


“The [Civil Engineering Squadron] 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,” stressed Al Watkins, the then 81st CES utilities manager. “The only way that we can be here is if we have sustainable clean water.”         

The pressure for Keesler’s water wells was dropping dangerously low. With only one well on an automatic transfer to generator power and flood waters at six feet and rising, something needed to be done.

“Myself and a chief master sergeant in my shop went out and started switching the power over to bring the water wells back up,” he said. “We were sitting in a dominator [truck], which sits off the ground about 10 feet. At first I was thinking ‘we got this,’ but when you start driving through high waters it becomes real scary.”

As Watkins and the chief braved the storm in over 100 mph winds, their slow trek to bring the base’s water back online looked like a scene from a horror movie. Only half of the base commissary building was visible through seven feet of water that now covered parts of Keesler. Several cars around the base were on fire due to salt water covering their electrical systems, he recalled. 

“When you start seeing all of this it affects you to a point where you can’t really believe it,” Watkins said. “We knew we were going to get it but we didn’t think it would be this bad.”

With all the chaos surrounding the base, the images were becoming hard to process.

“It messes with you psychologically because you start wondering about those who aren’t prepared,” Watkins said. “You know the mission goes on but driving throughout the base and seeing these things makes you just not even believe that it is happening. It was pretty scary”

There was little time to dwell on fear during that unnerving drive around the base. Watkins received an urgent plea for help in the form of a call from the base hospital’s boiler plant.

“The [Biloxi] Back Bay sits right behind the hospital. So this water is coming in but the boiler plant sits three feet into the ground,” he said. “The water was up to the chests of the guys who were out there. We took the truck and rescued two of our civil engineer boiler operators.”

Despite completing the rescue mission and bringing the much needed water wells back online, it seemed like Watkins and his team couldn’t catch a break.

“We got everything done and got back. Then we found out that some of our sewer lift stations stopped working, so it was just one thing after the next,” he said. “The sewers were just so filled with back bay water that the pumps were burning up.”

Seeing all the devastation around the base and thinking of those who were out in the storm, Watkins couldn’t help but think of his own home and how it faired.

“You try to keep a positive spin on it but now you are wondering how your own house looks,” Watkins said.

It would be two weeks later before he would have a chance to find out.


Climbing over mountains of rubble, pieces of houses and trash that blocked the path for vehicles to get to their neighborhood, Julianne Bocek, a program manager with 2nd Air Force, her husband Tom, a retired senior master sergeant and their 16 year old son, TJ, recall what would normally be a 20 minute walk took them more than 2 hours the morning after the storm.

“We hiked through the family cemetery and as we come around the bend we have a straight view of our lot and it was nothing but a slab,” Julianne recalled.

“Well some people lost everything, we at least had the lower part of our toilet still bolted down so we had a place to sit and think,” Tom chimed in while laughing.

A positive mental attitude and sense of humor helped the Boceks through the total loss of what was their dream home.

Julianne describes Langley Point, where they lived, as 67 beautiful homes on the water. Now, the only thing left was 67 concrete slabs. A cold, stark reminder of Hurricane Katrina and the awesome power Mother Nature possesses.

A similar story can be heard echoed by many who had homes along the coast and surrounding areas.

Stack remembers the drive back to his home two weeks after the storm. 

National Guard members were posted along the route checking identification for proof of residency. Highway 90, which he used to evacuate the area, was impassible except for one lane which also ended shortly after getting on the road he explained.

“Half of the stop lights are either hanging over or not even there,” he described about his road home.

He eventually reached a point where driving was no longer an option and had to hike the rest of his way home.

When he arrived at what used to be the house he owned it was nothing but a pile of debris.

“I had nothing. There was just nothing there,” he said.

“Anything you own, it’s just gone. You have no idea where it could be,” he said softly, pausing. “It’s kind of devastating”

Al Watkins too was finally able to return to his home to assess the damage to his property.

“It took me two weeks just to go check out my own house,” said Watkins. “Half of the roof was gone. I lost everything.”

Watkins knew that in order to move past the storm he’d have to start the rebuilding process immediately; not only for his home but for his base and his community.

“I just took a step back. I put a big piece of plastic on top of the roof and went to help the neighbors across the street because they were elderly,” he said. “They had a big part of their roof that wasn’t gone but the shingles were gone. So I went up on the roof to help fix it and fell off twice but I kept going. I didn’t make it back to my house until five weeks after that day.”

Overall, the Gulf Coast suffered an estimated $105 billion in damage, with Keesler alone amassing $950 million in damage, with more than 95 percent of its infrastructure compromised. Some feared the base would never open its gates again, changing the face of training for the Air Force.


The physical structures on Keesler and the surrounding areas may have been destroyed but the spirits of its members and community was anything but.

“We took portable generators out to the hospital because they had a person on life support,” said Watkins. “We took them out there with extension cords so they could reach that person. That was just the start.”

All around you could sense that the base was more to the area than just a place where military members worked. It was a part of the coastal family and if the area was going to survive Keesler had to play a major role.

“Sir, I know you aren’t supposed to, but can I have some water?” A local civilian pleaded to Watkins.

“It’s something I knew was important but insignificant to me because I knew we had it,” Wakins recalls.

The woman, her skin and clothes covered in mud from the back bay, was filthy.

“She just wanted some water,” he said. “I saw that the housing area residents were all gone so I grabbed some water hoses, put them together. She just sat there and teared up. That’s when I knew that we had to do something.”

Such a small gesture on Watkins’ part meant the world to the woman in need.

Keesler now had the only clean water for miles. Watkins and his crew were now working around the clock to supply fresh water to the surrounding areas, filling up water trucks and delivering the life-sustaining fluid to the community, he explained.

The base also provided assistance wherever it could in the form of volunteers.

“Tom contacted a few of the folks he knew, and Keesler sent out about 160 people,” said Julianne. “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.”

The days were long and tiresome; according to Watkins and the other area survivors, but in a time of great tragedy the base’s members rallied and ensured that it would return better than ever.


“The resiliency of the folks here at Keesler was amazing,” Watkins exclaimed. “We didn’t just sit down and wallow. We got up, brushed ourselves off and said let’s go. We knew we had a mission to continue and we did it.”          

That same resiliency is something that is engrained in the very fabric of Keesler’s members who survived the storm.

“Moving forward from victim to survivor, that makes you resilient,” said Julianne. “What was standing here, it was just a house. It was just stuff. This is what home’s all about – this here, my husband, my family.”

Driving around Keesler and Biloxi now, there are very few reminders of the storm and the devastation it brought to the area. Most of the buildings have been repaired, rebuilt or replaced. At the end of it all the awe-inspiring sense of comradery and family is what helped the coast survive and continue to thrive.

“When you make a difference in someone’s life it is just a feeling that is indescribable,” Watkins said tenderly.

Just a few years after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Keesler rebuilt, recovered and earned the Commander-in-Chief’s Installation Excellence Award in 2013, naming it the best base in the Air Force.

“My name might not be on any walls anywhere, but this is my base,” Watkins said proudly. “Keesler is a part of me and I’m emotionally connected to it.”