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Hurricane Hunters look back at Katrina

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Ryan Labadens
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

The number of missions and storms flown by the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron out of Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., are too numerous to mention. However, some storms leave such an impact they are unforgettable.

Such is the case with Hurricane Katrina. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the catastrophic storm, which caused severe damage to the Hurricane Hunter’s home station of Keesler Air Force Base. Despite the loss of homes by many members and the damage to the whole region, the unit continued their mission without missing a single tasking.Before, during and after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, there was a swarm of activity taking place among workers from federal, state and local government agencies, dealing with both the preparation for the storm and recovery thereafter. The wreckage left behind from Katrina made most of the Mississippi Gulf Coast look like a warzone, with devastating impacts to Gulf Coast residents, especially the people who lived on and around Keesler Air Force Base.

Three current members of the 403rd Wing, who happened to live on or near Keesler at the time, related their own personal experiences dealing with the buildup to and aftermath of this destructive storm.

Lt. Col. Shannon Hailes

Lt. Col. Shannon HailesSome aircrew members who were with the 53rd WRS “Hurricane Hunters” during Hurricane Katrina experienced the storm from two different levels: from the air and from the ground. Lt. Col. Shannon Hailes, who currently serves at the 815th Airlift Squadron director of operations, was a traditional reservist serving as a Hurricane Hunter pilot at the time. Both the 53rd WRS and 815 AS fall under the command of the 403rd Wing at Keesler AFB.

Hailes flew one mission into Katrina, just before the storm made landfall in Florida the week prior to it hitting the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, 2015. He and other Hurricane Hunter pilots who flew Katrina mentioned how different it was riding through the storm in the air as opposed to riding it out on the ground.

“Flying in it wasn’t that bad,” said Hailes. He later said, “Some of the storms – as bad as they are on the ground – if it’s a stable wind, it doesn’t do a lot of changing and the turbulence doesn’t come with it, (so we can’t) tell it as much in the plane.”

Hailes’ wife and children were still at their home in Gulfport before the storm hit. He took part in evacuating the Hurricane Hunter planes to their forward operating location at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, and then returned to Keesler on one final flight the day before the storm hit. Unfortunately, by the time he returned to his home in Gulfport to reunite with his wife and children, there wasn’t enough time to drive away from the storm area without getting stuck in the traffic that had already built up on the roads, so they decided to rough it out.

Since they lived in Gulfport north of Interstate 10, Hailes and his family didn’t receive as hard of a hit as many other people living on the coast. However he did note how long it took the storm to pass that day – more than 12 hours – and how much wind damage the storm did to his area. All of the shingles on his roof were blown off, his fence was blown away and many of the trees in his neighborhood were knocked down.

Hailes fared better than many other people in the Hurricane Hunters; a number of other full-time pilots who lived in the local area lost their homes entirely, he said. He went back on orders two weeks after Katrina to help fly other storm missions that season so that other squadron members could begin to pick up the pieces of their lives, and to rebuild what they had lost.

Tech. Sgt. Heather Cooper

One week before Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Tech. Sgt. Heather Cooper had just graduated from her Air Force technical training school as an aviation resource manager. Her first assignment in that career field was with the 53rd WRS “Hurricane Hunters.”

Cooper lived in Mobile, Alabama, at the time, but many of her family members lived in Gulfport and Woolmarket, Mississippi, close to Biloxi and Keesler AFB, where the Hurricane Hunters are based. Prior to Katrina’s landfall, many of the Hurricane Hunter planes had been evacuated to Houston, Texas, to continue flying the storm missions out of Ellington Field. Cooper deployed with them to help coordinate storm flights. This was her first deployment in support of storm missions. Not only was she nervous about this being her first storm mission, but she was concerned about the safety of her family back in Mississippi when she saw the effects of the storm on the news the day after it made landfall.

“I clearly remember sitting in the hotel lobby after Katrina hit, looking up at the T.V., and tears are in my eyes. Everything is just a disaster,” said Cooper. “Everyone else is living their normal lives, and ours are just in total disarray back home. It seemed so surreal to be in a place where life was normal, but there was nothing to go home to.”

Some of her family left ahead of the storm; others decided to stay and ride it out. On Sept. 3, 2005, the Saturday after Katrina hit, one of the Hurricane Hunter flights was scheduled to fly back in to Keesler AFB, and Cooper used this opportunity to go back to Biloxi and check on her family and belongings. Her parents had evacuated and her grandparents in Woolmarket had some light damage, but her aunt’s and uncle’s house had been completely destroyed.

“The water storm came in (and) knocked out three of the brick walls,” said Cooper. “They ended up rising with the water (and) had to punch through the ceiling (to) get through the roof. One of my cousins got pinned under the refrigerator and the other got knocked in the head with something else. They ingested a lot of water – they were sick – but at least they were alive and okay.”

Capt. Christopher Dyke

Like Hailes, other people from Keesler also stayed to weather the storm. Capt. Christopher Dyke, who currently serves as an aerial weather reconnaissance officer for the 53rd WRS, was serving in the active-duty Air Force in 2005. At the time, he was living on base in the training student dormitories while going through the Weather Officer Course here. Dyke had only been in the Air Force for about three months, and Keesler was one of his first tour-of-duty assignments for his weather training. With Hurricane Katrina churning in the Gulf of Mexico, he received a little more practical experience with weather training than what he had bargained.

Saturday night, Aug. 27, 2005, Dyke and other students staying on base had received a recall order instructing them to return to base, if they were away, and be prepared to shelter in place for Sunday.

Dyke and nearly 1,000 base personnel and students took shelter in the same building as the base command post, which also happened to be the same building where most of the weather courses were taught. Dyke said one of the weather students set up the projector in one of the classrooms so they could keep track of the storm’s progress while they were sheltered.

“You could see [Katrina] on the radar making a beeline for Biloxi,” said Dyke.

Sunday night, Aug. 28, 2005, Dyke said weather conditions were getting rough. He remembered listening to a handheld radio he had brought with him, hearing people calling in to local radio stations describing houses floating down the street, and even residents calling in while they were trapped in their attics and unable to escape their homes because the water had already risen too high. Most of the building Dyke sheltered in had lost power, but since the command post also happened to be in that building, that particular section still retained generator power.

Monday morning, Aug. 29, 2005, Dyke was part of the first survey team to step outside the shelter to see what the conditions were like around the building. Dyke noticed standing water, fallen limbs and trees, buildings with roofs ripped up, and windows on cars shattered from gravel that had been kicked up by the wind. Dyke and his team set up a safe zone so that people could go outside for some fresh air while they were staying in the shelter.

By Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005, condensation had formed throughout the building because of the August heat and humidity, and the leadership in the building had decided to let local personnel go off base to check on their homes. Dyke’s family lived in Pensacola, Florida, which had not received any severe weather from the hurricane, and he was able to contact them using the one working phone in the building to see how they were doing and to let them know he was okay. However, he heard stories about people returning to base after visiting what was left of their houses, which in some cases were no more than piles of rubble, and driving through their neighborhoods to find the bodies of their neighbors lying dead in their yards.

By Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005, the base leadership in the shelter announced that those who had the capability to leave and return to their homes and families could do so. That day, Dyke took his truck, which had survived the storm, and returned home to Pensacola, but other people on base had no home to return to – or not much of one.

One common thread that Hailes, Cooper, and Dyke all mentioned is that regardless of the material items lost to the storm, the things that mattered most to them were the people in their lives. They said they recognized how easy it was to take them for granted, and how much an event like Hurricane Katrina could make them appreciate the people in their lives all the more.

“Family (comes) first, no matter what,” said Cooper. “They could be gone in a second. Material items don't matter. They can always be replaced; a human life can't.”

The toll taken by Katrina is still one that many Gulf Coast residents feel today, even nearly 10 years after the storm swept through the region. Like Hurricane Camille before it, Katrina will be recalled as a storm that left a lasting impact on the generation it affected – leaving behind a story of struggle, and of the individual triumphs over it.