The 400

  • Published
  • By Airman Magazine Staff
  • Airman Magazine

Tech. Sgt. Steven Brumley, now the 637th Communications Squadron communications focal point NCO in charge at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, in retrospect, finds it interesting how much of a non-event Hurricane Katrina was to begin with.  The storm wasn’t expected to grow so large, or to have such a devastating effect when it impacted land. Coming from an inland state, Brumley wasn’t sure what to expect when he first heard about the incoming tempest nearly one decade ago.

In September 2005, Brumley was a 17-year-old airman basic who’d just arrived at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, for technical training to become a radio frequency transmission systems Airman. Because he was so new, he hadn’t yet been given the opportunity to visit the surrounding community of Biloxi. Therefore, his memory of the city pre-storm is now relegated to the view he saw from a car window while on his way to his base the first time.

“I can barely remember what it looked like,” Brumley said.  “There was stuff all along the shore – the casinos and whatnot — and it was bright.  I saw it all on the drive in, and then the next time I went off base, there was nothing at all along the shore. It was all gone.”

Just hours before the storm hit, an evacuation/shelter in place notice was given out.  Hundreds of tech school students gathered into crowded rooms at Jones Hall, each finding small spaces on the floor to claim as their home for the next three days.

“It got hot really fast, and you could hear the wind howling outside,” Brumley said.  “I remember wandering the halls, always dodging to get out of someone’s way, eavesdropping on conversations, time dragging by slowly.  Students were congregated by boarded-up exits with phones checking for signals or playing cards, or just talking in groups.”

After the storm had passed, the doors were opened to let in fresh air; however, Airmen weren’t allowed to leave the building until a couple days later. On the first day, people crowded around the door openings to peer out and assess the damage.  Brumley said he didn’t see much from that vantage point, but later, during the cleanup effort, he would get a more startling view of his surroundings.

Once Katrina had finished ripping through Mississippi, those affected began the arduous task of clearing out the debris and mending whatever structures they could.  On the base, 400 students were given the option to stay and help in the effort; all others would be evacuated. Brumley was quick to volunteer.

“One thing I told myself when I went to basic training was I wanted to ‘make a difference’ in my career,” he said. “I remember the (military training leaders) announcing that everyone would be flying out to Sheppard (AFB), but they needed some students to stay back to help with cleanup.  I really didn’t know a lot about what was going on immediately following the storm. I had no idea what was coming or what to expect.  All I remember thinking was ‘Here’s an opportunity to make a difference,’ and I jumped at it. I’ve still never regretted that decision.”

All remaining 400 students congregated into one building on base.  Each day, they were separated into teams and given an area to begin picking up trash and debris – a common commodity on base after Katrina. The flightline smelled of dead fish after being submerged during the storm, and tree branches blanked the ground.  Brumley said he was grateful to never get tasked with cleanup of the Commissary building, which at one point had been flooded with nearly six feet of water.  He’d heard horror stories about the smell of the place.

On a few occasions, Brumley’s team was able to give aid in the surrounding areas.  During one trip, the students’ driver pointed to a street as they passed.  He let his passengers know that entire families had been found dead in their homes after they tried to ride out Katrina there.  That was the first time the magnitude of the storm hit home for the young airman basic.

“One thing that struck me about the few times I helped clean up off base was the overwhelming feeling that we weren’t making any progress” Brumley said.  “I went out in crews and we would spend all day moving trash into piles, but the destruction felt endless, like we hadn’t even put a scratch on the surface.

Over three weeks, the 400 Airmen worked tirelessly every single day. After that time, classes began again and the technical schoolers’ parts in the recovery effort, for the most part, came to a close.

“The experience has helped me put other things in life into better perspective,” Brumley said.  “You can think about something like Katrina and you realize all the little things you get caught up in are petty and don’t really matter – they’re just distractions.  When something catastrophic happens, you have to focus on the bigger picture.”

Many of the 1,000 technical training students who had to be evacuated around the time of Katrina’s landfall wanted to stay behind to help. Once they returned to Keesler, one of the first questions they asked was how soon they could begin helping in the area recovery effort, said Col. Robert F. Simmons, then the 2nd Air Force director of operations. The account of the students’ evacuation and role in the area’s recovery was told in “Operation Dragon Comeback: Air Education and Training Command’s Response to Hurricane Katrina” by Dr. Bruce A. Ashcroft and Dr. Joseph L. Mason with the Air Education Training Command Office of History and Research.

“Most of these folks had only been in the Air Force for eight weeks,” said then-Chief Master Sgt. Rodney Ellison, AETC command chief master sergeant, when he visited Keesler AFB two days after the storm. “But their sense of commitment and their willingness to stay and do whatever it took to clean up, because they had been through the storm and felt they were abandoning others when they needed help the most — that’s heartening. Because here are people whose biggest concern two or three months ago was who to take to the prom. Now they’re concerned about people they’ve never even met.”

Though 400 non-prior service students stayed to help clear the base of debris, the 81st Training Group initially wanted to keep 800 students, but had to reduce the number to make billeting room for Mississippi National Guard troops after U.S. Northern Command made Keesler an operational staging activity three days after the storm.

“The students played a tremendous role in the recovery effort,” said retired Maj. Gen. Paul Capasso, who took command of the 81st Training Wing about two months after the storm. “From base cleanup to going downtown to help the recovery efforts of the cities of Biloxi and Gulfport, they were literally involved in that every week.

“Probably every day of the week, there were students out and about doing great things for Keesler (AFB) and the community, such as repairing and building houses and picking up debris off the beaches. Recovery covers a lot of things in getting the wing and the community back on their feet, and for the first month or so after the storm, those 400 students had their hands full.”

Katrina may have slowed the wing’s training mission for a while, with officials facing the task of reconstituting more than 100 resident courses that were taught before Katrina, but it was quickly back to its pre-storm footing. By the first anniversary of Katrina in 2006, the 81st Training Group was averaging 3,400 students, a 26 percent increase from the pre-storm average, said then-Col. Deborah Van De Ven, who assumed command of the group a month after Katrina, according to an August 2006 article on the official Air Force website.

The command formed a tiger team to work with the 81st TG staff to deal with training issues and establish priorities to bring up 142 courses determined by Air Staff. After the hurricane, the number of staff members dropped by 10 percent, but the staff augmented the instructor force with people from other bases.

By the time Capasso took command on Nov. 15, almost 2,000 non-prior service students were in training, more than before Katrina. On Aug. 21, the last student whose initial skills training was interrupted by Katrina had returned to finish training, which led Capasso to say, “Today, our training mission is back to 100 percent, thanks to the hard work of our Airmen.”

Capasso retired in 2011 as director of cyberspace operations and network services with the Office of Information Dominance and chief information officer for the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force and is now vice president of strategic programs for a cybersecurity solutions provider in Ashburn, Virginia. But a decade after Katrina, he still has fond memories of the students who played such an integral role in the recovery of the base and the community so early in their Air Force careers.

“The whole story of Katrina is a story of courage, strength and resiliency – people helping people and neighbors helping neighbors,” Capasso said. “It was an eye-awakening experience for all of those new Airmen who had just joined the Air Force during their time (at Keesler).

“Then, a major storm comes through, and they’re out there making a difference to a community that has been devastated. I think the stories they can tell are good teaching moments for all of the folks they met as they got older and more experienced in their Air Force careers. It was a brilliant story of how people, no matter who or where they are, can come together.”