Former commander recalls Keesler Katrina recovery

Former commander recalls Keesler Katrina recovery
Gen. Capasso became commander of Keesler Air Force Base just three months after the storm. (Photo source: WLOX)
Gen. Capasso became commander of Keesler Air Force Base just three months after the storm. (Photo source: WLOX)

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - He became commander of Keesler Air Force Base just three months after Hurricane Katrina.

Friday afternoon, Gen. Paul Capasso shared the story of how Keesler rebuilt and recovered from the storm.

Keesler got battered from two sides. Waters from nearby Mississippi Sound and Biloxi Bay left two-thirds of the base underwater, with flood waters damaging some 75 percent of its buildings.

The storm recovery at Keesler is called Operation Dragon Comeback.

"Now, this is not a story about brick and mortar. It is far from that. It's a story about people, family, neighbors, friends, volunteers," said Capasso.

Capasso told the lunchtime audience at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art that his heroes of the storm were the Keesler airmen.

Though many lost everything in the storm, they still gave themselves to the Coast community.

"These airmen recorded over 65,000 volunteer hours the first year after Hurricane Katrina. 65,000 volunteer hours outside the gate, helping this community grow," Capasso said.

Rebuilding work on the base included a new commissary and base exchange built 20 feet higher than the one flooded by the storm.

Keesler Medical Center also needed new facilities, since storm waters infiltrated its power supply.

"All the generators. All the electric power. Everything in that building was in the basement, and you know what happens when water and electricity mix. It's not a good thing," said Capasso.

The largest housing project in Air Force history was born from Katrina.

"It provided over 1,028 new homes, but we didn't just build homes. We built new communities on base. We replaced infrastructure that was built in the 1950s, and these communities had to be rebuilt," said Capasso to the crowd.

The Bay Breeze Event Center was among the new facilities added on base.

"We consolidated the base officers club, the enlisted club, the golf pro shop and community center into one building," said Capasso.

The former commander says the Katrina recovery, both at Keesler and along the Coast, should be models for the future.

"The story of Operation Dragon Comeback and the recovery efforts of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, honestly, is one to celebrate. It is one to celebrate, and one this community and the base should be very, very proud of," said Capasso.

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