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Published:June 9th, 2006 17:22 EST
Bracing for the storm by Tech. Sgt. Mike Spaits

Bracing for the storm by Tech. Sgt. Mike Spaits

By SOP newswire

SAN ANTONIO (AFPN) -- It’s hurricane season again, and Air Force bases along the Southern coastline are bracing for what many experts are predicting could be another busy summer.

In 2005, four major hurricanes -- Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma -- combined to produce more than $1 billion in damage to Air Force installations, and commanders are doing everything in their power to ensure their units are ready should they face another storm.

This year, Airmen at every coastal base from Florida to Louisiana have conducted base-wide hurricane preparedness exercises that ready the population’s ability to respond in short notice if a storm is bearing down on them. Most base commanders also have published hurricane readiness articles and supplements in their base newspapers.

“We know from Hurricane Katrina last year and countless other storms that preparedness
is the key to withstanding these ferocious forces of nature,” said General Paul Capasso, 81st Training Wing commander at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. “As well prepared as we’ve been at Keesler in the past, we’re determined to do even better this year.”

While Keesler received the biggest blow from Hurricane Katrina during last year’s record-setting season, five other installations in Florida also received varying levels of damage from Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina and Wilma.

According to Sean Quinn, chief of emergency management for the 482nd Fighter Wing at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., acting swiftly to the threat of a storm is one of the keys to ensuring Air Force families are taking care of.

“One of the important things we do during hurricane season is to maintain a high level of readiness so we can evacuate our jets if necessary. Our F-16 (Fighting Falcons) are evacuated approximately 48 hours prior to the expected onset of significant winds.

“This allows enough time for our pilots to fly the jets out, then return home to take care of their families and homes,” Quinn said.

Once a hurricane passes through an area, the Air Force doesn’t lose focus on the surrounding communities. At Keesler, base personnel have volunteered more than 50,000 man-hours assisting the local Biloxi community recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. To date, they’ve distributed more than 120,000 Meals-Ready-to-Eat, 187,000 pounds of food and clothing, and almost 230,000 gallons of water. And, Air Force troops have helped clear debris from businesses and neighborhoods.

At Eglin and Hurlburt Field, Fla., those bases endured Hurricanes Dennis and Katrina which combined for more than $179 million in damage. While Hurlburt Field officials are still working on the bulk of their repairs due to delays in funding, Eglin’s repairs are close to complete except for damage to their portion of Santa Rosa island and the test reservation.

“I’d say the main base area is close to 100 percent repaired, but we have about $154 million in damage on the island. That (cost) includes road repair, land restoration and constructing seawalls,” said Lt. Col. Gus Kirkikis, 796th Civil Engineer Squadron commander.

Even inland bases such as Barksdale AFB, La., felt the impacts from Hurricane Rita, with wind damage to buildings and roofs throughout the base. That storm caused almost $1.1 million in damage.

As the Air Force continues to work on recovering from 2005’s brutal storms, the 2006 hurricane season is expected to spawn another high number of storms with the potential for more major storms striking the U.S.

"For the 2006 north Atlantic hurricane season, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration is predicting 13 to 16 named storms, with eight to 10 becoming hurricanes, of which four to six could become 'major' hurricanes of Category 3 strength or higher," said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator.

On average, the north Atlantic hurricane season produces 11 named storms, with six becoming hurricanes, including two major hurricanes. In 2005, the Atlantic hurricane season contained a record 28 storms, including 15 hurricanes. Seven of these hurricanes were considered "major," of which a record four hit the United States. "Although NOAA is not forecasting a repeat of last year's season, the potential for hurricanes striking the U.S. is high," said Lautenbacher.

At one base…

Hurricane Katrina struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005 as the third most powerful hurricane ever to make landfall in the United States.

Despite losing two-thirds of their base housing, as well as the base exchange, commissary and Keesler medical center, the training mission resumed just three weeks after Katrina tore through the historic base. A full six months earlier than originally anticipated.

Today, the men and women at Keesler are still working daily to recover from the damages of the ferocious storm, yet, more than 3,400 students attend classes every day -- an increase of 700 students prior to Katrina.

While the recovery of the base and the surrounding region will take years, Keesler’s enduring spirit can be found throughout the community as the base populace continues to volunteer thousands of hours to the local community through many worthwhile events and charities such as Habitat for Humanity.

The base will celebrate its 65th anniversary, Jun. 12-15, 2006.

Some hurricane facts:

Damage from 2005 Hurricanes/Percent Repairs Complete

Keesler AFB, Miss. - $950 million/30% Repaired
Eglin AFB, Fla. - $166 million/7% Repaired
Hurlburt Field, Fla. – $13.5 million/20% Repaired
Patrick AFB, Fla. – $10 million/0% Repaired
Homestead ARB, Fla. - $7.3 million/70% Repaired
Barksdale AFB, La. – $1.1 million/100% Repaired
MacDill – No damage
Tyndall AFB, Fla. – No information available

Judyth Piazza Storm footage:

Source: USAF