Skip to comments.Kessler AFB Shelter Commander Story
Posted on 10/28/2005 7:15:35 AM PDT by RileyD, nwJ
Command: Category 4
Lt Col Randy Coats, 333d Training Squadron/CC
Command. There's no better job in the world. After seven years in jobs with command authority and two squadron commands, I figured I had a good idea what command was all about. I was wrong. What changed my mind? Four words--"Shelter Commander" and "Hurricane Katrina."
From 28 Aug - 2 Sep, I lived with 730 of my "closest friends" in 50-year old Bryan Hall at Keesler AFB, MS. It was my third stint as a shelter commander, but it was unlike anything I had experienced before. As life slowly returns to normal on the Gulf Coast and I reflect on the experience, I've come to appreciate the unpredictability of command and how much an event like Katrina can change people and communities.
First, you have to understand some basics. My shelter is a unique animal on Keesler. Most shelters here are dedicated primarily to one unit. Mine is not. I have all the active duty and family members from a wide variety of units--two training squadrons, CE and Security Forces (and prisoners), 100+ Marines, communications students (NCOs and roughly 60 Lt's), 150 NCO Academy students and their faculty, and 50 international officers and their families. The building is an old nuclear fallout shelter, with no windows and no shower facilities. With that setting in mind, I offer the following memories and thoughts on Hurricane Katrina.
25 Aug (Thu): One of my sharpest young MSgt points out Katrina "may grow into something over the weekend" and suggests we update our shelter/evacuation data sheets. I admire his enthusiasm, tell him that's not a bad idea", then promptly forget to do anything because Katrina's not headed our way at all and I've got other things to do besides worry about a piddly Category 1 storm.
27 Aug (Sat): Two CAT (Command Action Team) meetings. Katrina has strengthened and is headed our way, due to arrive Monday afternoon. Tentatively plan to open shelters Monday morning. I remember the MSgt's words and begin repeating every officers golden rule--"Never ignore a SNCO Never ignore a SNCO."
28 Aug (Sun): Turn on CNN before heading to 0800 CAT. Radar picture shows Katrina is Category 5, taking up the whole Gulf of Mexico and headed straight for us, due to arrive before dawn Monday. "Never ignore a SNCO
Never ignore a SNCO."
- 1000: Initiate full recall and order all personnel to evacuate or shelter NLT 2100. Many people out of town for the weekend. Accountability is a nightmare.
- 1700: Open the shelter. People/families begin arriving. Have to stop two refrigerators, one 21" TV set, and three mattresses at the door. Students (of all ranks) drafted to help carry bags into the shelter. People told to bring food and water for three days. Most bring food for two days; smokers bring cigarettes for twenty days. Have to break the news--no smoking inside the shelter and once you're checked in you can't go outside (Hotel California rules).
- 2200: Doors locked and boarded up from the outside by CE (one door in an alcove left uncovered).
30 August (Tuesday):
0145: One of my NCOs wakes me up because "Cops want to talk to you, Sir". SFS NCO is direct. "The good news is your cat is fine." Next question obvious. As he hands back my house key he adds, "The bad news is I didn't need this to get into your house." Doesn't quite register "How'd you get in?" He looked me straight in the eye and said, "I walked through your back wall." That can't be good at all. Looks like a total loss. My wife was on a cot in the hallway. I woke her up to give her the news. Her response? "I guess it'll be easy to pack when we move next year." (She's getting anything she wants for Christmas, forever). Spend the rest of the night thinking of how to stay focused and project a positive attitude given that all my worldly possessions will probably fit in a gym bag. (note: we were eventually able to save most things above 4 feet)
0700: Bad news spreads like wildfire. Entire shelter knows about my house. Lots of supportive comments as I wander the halls but I see the struggle behind the words--they're sorry for my loss but worry about their own. Their concern for my family despite fears for their own touches me deeply. First time in 19 years I've really had to fight back tears, but I've got to do the commander thing and project a positive attitude. As I walk the hallways I truly feel "the burden of command." My family is safe; I have to push my losses aside for now. These 730 people have no access to information other than what I tell them. I am their link to the outside world. I see them watching me, watching how I react and looking for cues as they try to figure out how they should feel--is the commander scared? Depressed? Worried? Confident? I realize that their mood over the next few days will be a direct reflection of what they perceive as my mood. I've been tested in command before, but never like this.
0800: Drive to CAT meeting across base. Devastation is shocking. Trees down everywhere. Cars trashed everywhere. Windows out. Walls out. Buildings collapsed. Roofs ripped apart.
0930: Mass briefing to the Natives. Most uncomfortable briefing I've ever given. Reports indicate widespread devastation. Death toll probably in the hundreds. Power out for at least three weeks. Must begin water conservation. Minimum three months to resume base mission. Will not leave shelter for at least three days. 730 stunned and scared faces focused on me. All are easy to read. (1) realization of how bad it is, (2) fear of what it did to their homes. Worst possible situation for a commander--troops need reassurance I can't give. Struggle to keep my voice steady. Not sure how well I did.
- Natives' supplies running out. Most critical shortfalls: food, diapers, baby food, and feminine hygiene products. Issue MREs for adults. Assign "Baby POC" to track baby supplies. Develop new metric for morning/evening briefings--diaper burn rate. 17 infants in shelter x 5 diapers/day & 4 jars of baby food/day. Have one day supply of diapers, two days of baby food, but at least three more days in the shelter. Submit urgent supply request to Command Post. Luckily, Sanitation Kits include 44-year old feminine products.
- Still no cable TV and no internet. Information is life. I average (I counted) no more than 10 steps before someone stops me to ask what's going on outside.
- Lieutenant students offer to take over operation of the Children's Recreation Room. One has been to Clown College; several brought coloring books. First Sergeant asks me later (a) "How come the officers have coloring books?" and (b) "How come some of the pictures were colored in before the children started using them?" Honor of the officer corps is at stake; I quickly assign the Shirt to a meaningless task to distract her. Hope it worked. Best not to ask. (Note: to be perfectly honest, that actually happened during Hurricane Dennis in July, but it's 100% true and was too good a story not to include here)
- Pregnant Native goes into premature labor. Ambulance evacuates her to hospital.
- Another uncomfortable night. All Natives (and myself) report profuse sweating in lieu of sleep. Set up special room with lots of fans for children to sleep in. Authorized Chaplain to take a small raiding party to Chapel next door to get rocking chairs for parents with small children.
31 August (Wed):
- Still hot. Two cases of dehydration evacuated to hospital. I'm dehydrated, nauseous, and weak despite drinking constantly. Can't believe I let this happen. Check with medics, but saline solution is in short supply and if I'm still walking I don't need it bad enough. They give me some good drugs to control symptoms. Eight hours, 240 ounces of water (I had to keep track), and 9,000 bathroom breaks later I feel much better.
- Lots of debris around the building. Still dangerous for people to go outside, but Natives are getting stir-crazy. Assigned a team to clear and rope off an area near the building. Post guards to ensure nobody wanders off, then allow small groups outside for fresh air for short periods of time. They love me again.
- Wing/CC reads off list of inbound aid at CAT meeting. Not the same as hearing it on TV. I never imagined that it would mean so much to know that so many people are focused on helping you.
- Baby supplies critical. Wing/CC orders a raid on what's left of Commissary and BX. Deliveries to shelters save the day.
- Another bad briefing to the Natives. Only one way to explain why they can't leave the shelter--tell them the truth as I know it. Looting rampant off-base. Looters in base housing. AF member car-jacked right outside the gate. No gas in local area; $5/gallon three hours away. Chaos in New Orleans is moving our way. Extra Security Forces with .50 cals on HMMWVs en route to help secure the base.
- Natives frantic about their homes. They fear anything that survived the storm won't survive the looters. Try to focus them on aid headed our way. Emotions running high. One woman goes into shock; evacuated to hospital.
- Another sweaty, sleepless night. Natives apparently locate world's largest stock of extension cords. Conservative estimates indicate we're running 500 fans off 5 power outlets and 2,000 extension cords. Confiscated the most impressive daisy chains as a safety hazard. Briefed Shelter Management Team to increase fire checks of the building.
01 Sep (Thu):
- Cannot release people to return to homes overnight due to security concerns. However, must let Natives assess their homes or risk bodily harm trying to keep them here. Strict guidelines for home assessments--provide written route of travel; must have a wingman; no dependents can go; max of one hour to save what you can and return to shelter; must be decontaminated before reentering shelter because many houses (mine included) have sludge/sewage inches deep. Lieutenants do great job controlling departure and decon lines.
- Natives return to shelter. Many are homeless. Commander School never taught me how to respond to "I have nothing left," or how to comfort women and men crying uncontrollably in my arms. Some cried for what they lost, some for what they saw. News reports didn't prepare them for seeing not just their home but their entire neighborhood destroyed, or for the cops telling them the bad smell they noticed was probably neighbors who tried to ride out the storm and were buried in the rubble. My only consolation is that I know how they feel. The stink in the house made me gag; the mud was gooey, sticky, and got on everything. My wife spent years building a beautiful collection of Amish figurines. Seeing the trail of broken figures across two yards (I never found the curio cabinet) was painful to endure. Crabs running across my feet in the bedroom (which scared the bee-geezus out of me) was a comical twist to a non-comical situation.
- In an attempt to improve morale, the chow hall (excuse me, Dining Facility) next to the shelter opens for one hot meal of whatever was available. Natives happily wait in line 2+ hours for rice with spaghetti sauce and a piece of bread. After the week weve had, its like Grandmas Thanksgiving dinner.
- Third straight day of gorgeous weather. Security still a big concern. My DO reports her neighbors shot a looter (it may not be politically correct, but I applaud their initiative). Natives don't care, they just want out. Shelter Commanders compare notes at CATwere all seriously concerned about tempers rising in the shelters. Believe the Natives are just about at the breaking point.
- Still no a/c. Lots of sweat and little sleep.
02 Sep (Fri):
- Security situation better. Natives' are about worn out. Wing/CC authorizes release from shelters. Six days and five nights we will never forget, and the recovery efforts have only just begun.
To say that Hurricane Katrina has been a "life event" would be an understatement. During my time running the Bryan Hall shelter I saw the best and the worst of people first-hand. Some sat in their little piece of floor space and watched others work to make the situation better. Most looked for every opportunity to help others and to make our little slice of hell a little more comfortable. I was amazed at how easy it was to read their faces. I could see clearly as fear changed to shock, disbelief, then anger. I watched in amazement as the anger was replaced with a calm sense of resolve and focus to simply move forward and do what needed to be done. From the little boy I found wandering the halls at midnight (obviously looking for a bathroom) to the lieutenants who stepped up, took charge when I asked, and showed all of us what "officership" is all about, every person in that shelter taught me their own unique and valuable lesson about command.
The CE troops and the Cops in my shelter taught me the meaning of dedication. I watched them tramp in and out on shift work throughout the storm and its aftermath. They were wet, muddy, sweaty, and tired. But every time they came through those doors they took time to find someone whose house they checked on and they always stopped by to give me an update on what they saw. To quote a favorite TV show of mine, "They were magnificent."
My Wing/CC described it perfectly a few days after the storm. Some puffed-up colonel called him up in the CAT and said "General so-and-so is coming down there. I want to know who the most important person on that base is and I want their name right now." The boss' response was classic. "Well, colonel, the most important person on this base is a Staff Sergeant with a chainsaw and if you'll give me ten minutes I'll get that name for you." CE and Cops. If you're looking for the heroes of Keesler, I'll be happy to escort you to their buildings.
As for the rest of the folks in the shelter, they were just as amazing in a different way. For all but the first 16 hours of our 6-day adventure they lived in a hot, poorly-ventilated building with virtually no amenities but running water. Most slept on tile floors. All slept in puddles of their own sweat. All spent 5 days not knowing whether or not they had a home to go home to. Yet through all of it, they kept a sense of humor and worked together to make the best of a bad situation. Even in the darkest moments I never walked down the hall without hearing a constant stream of "Morning, Colonel!" "How's it going, Sir?" or "Hey, Sir! When's the beer truck getting here?" I was only chewed out once by a shelteree. I would argue that in a "typical" group of 731 people, I would've been chewed out several times a day at least.
In my 19 years of service I have never seen a better demonstration of the military "family", or a better demonstration of true professionalism. I have to add, though, that what I've seen in the 12 days since has been just as impressive. The base and its leadership have been amazing. In addition to bringing our mission back on-line in less than 3 weeks, we've provided critical support to local communities. At last count, we'd sent nearly 50 missions out the gates to deliver food, water, and medical support. I was the CAT Director when a local cop showed up and said the shelter down the street had an outbreak of diarrhea and vomiting. The boss had medical teams, food, and water on site within 30 minutes. The list goes on and on.
The same is true for my own unit. With more than one-third of my squadron homeless, my troops (military and civilian) have done things that will bring a tear to anyone's eye. Not one single person in my unit has cleaned out a storm-damaged home alone. We've had teams out every day helping squadron members and retirees (and sometimes people we didn't even know) cut trees and clean out flooded homes. They have made me proud to be part of their team and proud to be part of the US military. They have taught me when it comes right down to it they don't need leadership. They are, each and every one of them, leaders in their own right. Leaders with the willingness, the desire, and the compassion to do the right thing without being told. In truth, they don't need a commander, they only need a cheerleader who will give them the support and the freedom they need to do what needs to be done. When I look back in years to come and ponder what Hurricane Katrina taught me about command that may just be the most important lesson of all.
The message/email above is exactly as it came to me in a widely distributed email - except for the few sentences I separated and made blue plus the few sentences at the beginning I boldfaced about listening to SNCOs.
When I read this I laughed and I laughed and I laughed and tears ran down my face.
"Only the humble are sane." anon
It is Keesler, not Kessler AFB
Hey Sand - here's that Keesler AFB story!
I moved to the Gulf are in 1974 with my family, the remnants of Camille (1969)were visible but not too dramatic, I think this storm is leagues beyond Camille.
My family rode out Katrina in Ocean Springs (4 miles East) of Keesler, they wound up climbing into the attic to avoid the five feet of rising water inside the house. Talking on the phone does not give justice to what it was like. Thanks for the very vivid and descriptive email summary... it will be awhile before things are anywhere near normal.
Ok - I know it's a fake now - no NCO - First Shirt or otherwise - has to ask why an officer has a coloring book!
Should be required reading in every high school civics course.
My brother in law lives in Ocean Springs. He also is in the Air Force, stationed at Keesler. He lives on the east side of Ocean Springs, near a road that runs out to the Gulf and there is a marina along this road. You may know where it is. I've only been there once so I don't know the name or address. He was very lucky and din't have any damage, except fro a fence blown down. Other homes in the neighborhood were destroyed.
Really hit home for my family as well. My bride of 34 years trained there, I trained there as a SSGT and as a civil servant, and our son trained there in 2002 - plus we all vacationed there for a few weeks one summer.
Thanks for posting this.
I was a "diddy-bop" pinger at Keesler in spring of '73. We would launch a bottle rocket barrage on the classes marching across the old flight line at night. Ah...the memories.
Yup, I trained in Bryan Hall back in 78. Glad I missed this event!
"Never ignore a SNCO
Never ignore a SNCO."
The junior officers I worked for at the Pentagon knew this rule...
That's right...it's to keep them busy while the real work gets done by their subordinates....
I left Keesler for overseas in late 1969? (one month before Camille hit) Can't say I ever miss much of Biloxi, it REALLY sucked back then (before the casinos). Went back a few years ago, and it had really improved...didn't see any of the barracks where I stayed....since then, I Google-Earth'd Keesler and saw the demolished 'foot print' of where I'd stayed while there.... My guess is the old WWII barracks had survived....
Ha Ha Ha......damned NCOs :)
Here sir - have some crayons and go sit in the corner. We'll let you know when we need something signed.
If I remember a "diddy-bop" was a morse code reader/radio operator...."TWs" were "male admin specialists", "tape apes" were communications center specialists.....and the list went on and on......
But the worst aspect was the relationship between the USAF and the neighboring community. I still recall the "Beautify Biloxi - kill an airman" bumper stickers. I can't say that I blame the locals as we brought much of it upon ourselves. Keesler was full of fresh-out-of-basic airmen, many experiencing freedom and responsibility for the first time, and many of us made a less than smooth transition to adulthood.
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