Team Robins remembers Hurricane Katrina 10 years later

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. — The stories tell the same tales. The destruction Hurricane Katrina left when it made landfall Aug. 29, 2005, was immense. Now 10 years later, Robins team members are sharing their stories of what it was like during and after the storm.

“The devastation was unbelievable,” said Marty Cain, 78th Air Base Wing legacy systems maintainer, who traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi, with a group of co-workers and church members.

“All the oak trees were just stripped. The houses were stripped to the foundations,” Cain remembered. What his group of a few dozen did was mostly repair homes and cut down trees. Part of their efforts included rescuing an elderly lady who had been trapped in her home due to fallen trees.

During his weeklong stay — in which the assembly stayed in tents on someone’s farm in Lyman, Mississippi — Cain saw another place that was buzzing with hummingbirds looking for food.

“You can’t appreciate the scope of the damage through videos or pictures,” he said.

The storm affected areas from Louisiana to Alabama, causing 1,304 deaths and $50 billion in damages, according to a report by Dr. Daniel Haulman, on Nov. 17, 2006, titled, “The U.S. Air Force Response to Hurricane Katrina.”

Between Aug. 23 and 29, the Air Force flew 109 hours in WC-130 airplanes, which were used to measure and track the hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Air Force fixed-wing aircraft, including C-130s, C-17s and C-5s, flew crucial airlift missions to transport both people and equipment and supplies,” the report said.

The Air Force evacuated 2,602 medical patients and an additional 26,943 displaced people from the area.

In all branches, the Department of Defense “flew 12,786 helicopter sorties, rescued 15,000 citizens and transported 80,000 people,” Haulman said.

A 433rd Airlift Wing C-5 shuttled more than 1,200 patients from New Orleans to San Antonio, Texas. The aircraft also brought in large water pumps from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to help pump water from flooded New Orleans.

Robins deployed 68 personnel and $4 million in equipment for the relief effort from the 51st Combat Communications Squadron, and volunteers from the 52nd Combat Communication Squadron were also called upon to aid in setting up communications, according to Tech Sgt. Joshua Bendall, historian for the group.

“We brought everything we had,” said Master Sgt. Brad Schafer, 78th Medical Group first sergeant and formerly with the 5th Combat Communications Group.

The main mission for the group was to set up communications at Keesler Air Force Base near Gulfport, Mississippi, and to provide assistance to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The deployed Airmen stayed in the student triangle at the base during their six- to eight-week stay.

Schafer remembered the base commissary being flooded with water and cars floating. He said technical school students at the base were told to leave their cars and were evacuated to other bases.

Cars were spray-painted with insurance company’s names, and houses were also marked to let others know it had been checked for survivors.

“It reminded me of a city dump,” Schafer said. “All around were trash piles, but those piles were houses. It looked like someone had picked the house up, crumbled it and dropped it back down,”

Master Sgt. Avis Smith, now the the Robins Airman and Family Readiness Center noncommissioned officer in charge, was stationed at Keesler during the storm. Her husband and three children evacuated to Atlanta while she sheltered on base.

She and her fellow co-workers stayed in the dorms, which were made of thick concrete, while the storm hit. In the interior rooms, Smith said she couldn’t hear much, but in the bathroom or stairwell, the noise was a different story.

“It sounds like the roof was falling apart,” she said.

Her siblings lived in New Orleans and lost their homes. Her father, a firefighter in the city, had to gut his house.

For years, Smith wouldn’t drive along the coast.

“I couldn’t stand looking at it,” she said of the loss of the antebellum homes along the Gulf Coast along with countless trademark restaurants and shops.

Cain was one who did drive along the beach.

“There was not a single home standing. It was as ugly as it could get,” he said.

Joel Watson, a C-130 aircraft overhaul supervisor with the 560th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, was on a different mission. He went to the city as part of an animal rescue. His wife heard there were three women who wanted to help animals in the area.

“When we got off the exit, going into Mobile, Alabama, there were people looting,” Watson said.

The closer they got to where the hurricane made landfall, the worse the roads were.

“There were big old shrimp boats turned upside down. It was creepy,” Watson said.

Watson said even with all the devastation and the sadness that came with the tragedy, he was able to take away a touch of happiness when he brought home a Catahoula hound dog he named Jazz.

“I got a good dog from it,” Watson said.

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