Keesler AFB Takes A Half Billion Dollar Blow From Katrina

Keesler Air Force Base took quite a hit from the hurricane. Flood waters were three feet deep in the Security Forces building and eight feet deep in the Keesler Club.

"Hit us about 105 miles an hour, winds sustained for almost 12 hours. We think gusts of 140 miles an hour before our weather station blew away," Keesler Commander Gen. William Lord said.

But it wasn't the wind that brought the most destruction, flood waters inundated the base. The damage estimate is huge: A half billion dollars.

Amazingly, Keesler's underwater runway was semi drained and operational 11 hours after the storm.

"They were picking up live, flopping fish two days later on the runway. So, we're at 33 feet above sea level. But of course all that damage came from the back water, from the Back Bay," Lord said.

Following the storm, Keesler's mission changed from training to humanitarian and disaster assistance.

"We have been taking our manpower pool here. Those people who are no longer doing their mission, because we're not doing training right now. We're making those people involved with the process of getting out food, getting water out, getting the supplies to those who really need it," Chris Cook said.

While helping the community, Keesler must also assess and repair the considerable damage on base.

Housing was among the areas hardest hit. Of the 1,800 homes on base, nearly 1,000 were destroyed by the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina.

Keesler Medical Center was badly damaged by flood waters. Temporary tents now provide emergency health care for those active duty personnel on base.

"All we can do here is basically triage them, make sure they're safe and send them on to the next hospital." Dr. Rob Thaxton with the 81st Medical Group said.

It will be six months before the medical center reopens.

"We have 150 contractors in the basement right now that are working on the power system, getting all the debris and mold out and all the stuff that must be remedied before you can safely see patients there. And we're looking at a six month time frame," General James Daughtery with the 81st Medical Group said.

During that time, Keesler will continue to support humanitarian aid in the community, while re-building the damaged air force base.