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American Forces Press Service

Gulf Coast Evacuees Find Relief at Maxwell

By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala., Sept. 3, 2005 As more than 300 active-duty and reserve airman assigned to Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., return from deployments in the Middle East in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, their fellow Keesler airmen and families displaced by the hurricane are among those seeking shelter here.

U.S. Central Command Air Forces announced plans today to return airmen assigned to hurricane-struck Keesler early from their deployments so they can attend to their families' needs and help the base's recovery efforts.

In addition, nearly 100 airmen scheduled to deploy from Keesler will remain behind to recovery from the storm, according to a news release. Other airmen from bases not affected by what federal officials have dubbed one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history will assume their positions in support of the war on terror, officials announced.

"While our focus remains on fighting the war on terrorism, taking care of people is a top priority," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Allen G. Peck, deputy commander of Combined Forces Air Component. "They can't effectively perform the mission if their heads and hearts are focused on the safety and welfare of their loved ones."

Meanwhile, military-affiliated evacuees from Gulf Coast states steadily continued to arrive here today seeking shelter, many of them arriving with few or no personal belongs and some, with merely the clothes on their backs.

Maxwell, in Montgomery, has mobilized to help displaced airmen and their families from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. Keesler officials said as much as 95 percent of the base had been underwater-a condition caused by rain and storm surge-and the installation suffered "extensive damage" when it was hammered by Hurricane Katrina Aug. 29.

At University Inn, Maxwell's temporary lodging facility, the 42nd Mission Support Squadron based here set up an ad hoc assistance team to help evacuees. Seven days ago, the unit began tracking and helping those fleeing the storm. Today, the small team works around the clock, accounting for and assisting those who left their lives in the murky wake along the Gulf Coast.

"They gave an order to evacuate," Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Miller said. "Everybody who was at Keesler had to leave." Miller, a personnel readiness officer, is part of the evacuation assistance team.

Miller's team has processed more than 900 people. The evacuees being assisted here include active-duty military members, reservists, military students attending training at Keesler, retirees, military civilian employees and their families.

Maxwell base personnel began for the expected deluge of refugees by converting their health-and-wellness center into a makeshift shelter before Katrina made landfall.

"If a family comes here and they don't have the money to pay for a room, we can put them in the gym," Miller said.

Several days ago, approximately 60 elderly veterans were transported by bus to Maxwell's gym after being evacuated from Gulfport, Miss. Airmen from the 42nd Medical Group "checked the folks out," Miller said. The buses later moved the veterans to Atlanta and Washington D.C. Those with urgent medical needs were airlifted to hospitals, Miller said. The base dining facility is providing boxed meals

But Katrina's wrath has not been restricted to the Gulf Coast alone. Inland cities several hundred miles away from the shore have also been impacted.

Tech. Sgt. Sonya Jackson, an airman who works separation and retirement issues for the 42nd Mission Support Squadron, but now mans an evacuee assistance desk 12 hours a day, said her family in Jackson, Miss., "had power outages" and is still without electricity. Jackson, an 18-year military veteran, said she has "never seen anything like this before."

As the evacuees wearily arrive in front of University Inn, assistance to those still at Keesler and along the coast keeps moving out. Air Force security police at Maxwell sent forces earlier in the week, Miller said, and later this weekend, a local team is mobilizing to retrieve family pets.

Outside the inn, the same scene is repeated several times every few minutes. Families that weathered the storm together at Keesler see each other for the first time since being evacuated. They embrace, share stories and plans.

"We're leaving today-going farther north to Virginia," Sonja Mottley said. Mottley's husband, an Air Force major stationed at Keesler, had been assigned there only since June. "We're leaving right now," she said.

Mottley said local officials told her schools in the ravaged area would not reopen for at least 60 days. Her plan is to move her three children north, stay with family and try to get her kids in school.

"My husband grabbed some clothes for us. We have nothing but a few sets of clothes," Mottley said. "It's horrible."

Amy Szatanek is heading to North Carolina with her three children for "some time off." She and her husband, Jeff, an Air Force major and deputy commander for the 81st Civil Engineering Squadron at Keesler, lived on the shore at Keesler and had been there just eight weeks before losing everything to Katrina.

"The overall plan is to start over again," Szatanek said. Her husband will remain at Keesler. "He's got to stay and work," Szatanek said. "Eventually the kids and I will relocate to Montgomery, but he has to get the base up and running."

The 81st Civil Engineering Squadron had Keesler's runway "up and running" the day after the hurricane came ashore, Szatanek said. Medical evacuations were staged from Keesler's runway and debris is already being removed. Federal agencies are also staging from Keesler and a "mini (base exchange)" has already been erected, she said.

Families at Maxwell called the support from the military community superb. "They try to keep us abreast of what's happening and they have support groups," Szatanek said. "Not knowing what's next is the worst."

Szatanek maintains a positive attitude despite the fact that three to four feet of water flooded her home and deposited more than four inches of sludge. Her house and all her belongings are a complete loss.

"You can't change it," she said. "We're not going to talk about what we lost, but about what we have," she said.

More than 6,000 people at Keesler huddled into shelters during Katrina, but no one was injured or killed, according to Air Force officials.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is using Maxwell as a staging area for relief operations. Base officials say they accommodate approximately 1,300 evacuees in temporary shelters.

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