Katrina's Effects Extend to Servicemembers in Germany
By Senior Airman Amaani Lyle, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service
SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany, Sept. 9, 2005 Nineteen years of growing up around the capricious hurricanes of Pascagoula, Miss., kept an Air Force staff sergeant here relatively calm upon hearing the news that a surge in the Gulf of Mexico was on the way.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Jamie Bosarge, 52nd Communications Squadron network training instructor, views images of her hometown on the Internet at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, Sept. 7. Bosarge said the hurricane and subsequent floods destroyed most of the main areas of her hometown, Pascagoula, Miss. Her parents said they do not want to relocate but would opt to rebuild in the area. Photo by Senior Airman Amaani Lyle, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
But the reality of Hurricane Katrina's wrath soon set in. Following the devastation and displacement of thousands of hapless victims since the catastrophic Aug. 29 event, Air Force Staff Sgt. Jamie Bosarge said she never felt more helpless than knowing her family was in peril. With more than 4,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean separating the airman from her family, Bosarge recalled that each of the eight days without communication seemed like an eternity.
"That first week with no communication has been the hardest," the 52nd Communications Squadron network training center instructor said. "I literally didn't know if my family was dead or alive."
By the time Bosarge became aware of the disaster's magnitude, the daylong cataclysm already had ravaged parts of Louisiana, Alabama and her hometown of Pascagoula, located on the easternmost tip of Mississippi, about 20 minutes east of Biloxi.
"When I finally heard from my mother, we spent most of the conversation crying," Bosarge said. "My entire family is from the coast, and most of them lost everything, but my mom still calls herself lucky. Our house sustained damages but is one of the only habitable ones in our family right now."
Bosarge said her family's swimming pool, of all things, has helped to keep them and at least six other relatives -- grandparents, aunts, uncles and children -- alive.
"They've been able to boil the pool water for bathing and drinking," she said. "Food and water is very much limited, and electricity will be out in some areas for months."
More than a dozen airmen here have family members who resided in the affected areas, and all have been in touch with at least one of their relatives, said Sue Perron of the American Red Cross here.
"We're trying to get more answers, but the (Red Cross's) objective right now is to just keep everyone alive and well," she said. "Some parts of the affected area are still under about 20 feet of water."
Many of those left alive must now figure out how to continue making a living.
"The casinos and shipyards are the primary source of income for coastal families, and now most of those businesses are gone," Bosarge said.
Her father, a shipyard worker of more than 30 years and the primary breadwinner for her family, must now find a new job to sustain their household.
"My father was one of many residents who depended on the shipyard industry, and now, I'm not sure what he'll do," she said. "I wanted to go home immediately to help, but my mother told me to stay. She said she felt better knowing that I was safe in Germany."
Nonperishable foods and boiled water keep her family alive, but, Bosarge said, hope, faith and a sense of humor is sustaining her family's resilient spirit.
"My parents are really trying to make the best of things right now," she said. "One of our family members recently had a birthday, and my mom baked a cake with emergency candles on it."
Bosarge said her mother also received an unseemly piece of mail. A water bill made its way through the postal system to her mother's home, now surrounded by lapping, seeping water and bereft of utilities.
"My mom just laughed and said, 'What are they going to do, turn the water off if I don't pay?'"
Bosarge said the promise of a life returned to normal cannot entirely buffer the feelings of loss. "I can't even begin to imagine what to expect when I go back home," she said.
Answering the calls for assistance from affected areas, airmen here have banded together to offer donations for flood victims in need of food, water, clothing and shelter.
Air Force Senior Airman Edward Perez of the 52nd Communications Squadron coordinated a donation fund at a local bank so that people here could financially assist in American Red Cross' relief efforts. The ARC has described this as the largest relief effort in the organization's history.
"I saw so many people crying out for help on television; I just couldn't believe this was happening in our country," Perez said. "I've walked on some of the very same streets that are destroyed now."
Enlisted members and officers in a variety of Air Force specialties attend two- to 12-month technical training classes at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., so even though they may not have family members there, Perez said, seeing the devastation still hit close to home for many airmen.
"Seeing Keesler was like seeing some sort of movie where the end of the world had come," he said. "I wondered about civilian friends I had made there and about how the (servicemembers) were going to continue life after such a devastating blow."
Though the military is participating in an unprecedented on-site relief effort, Katrina's aftermath spurred Perez into action to make a positive change locally. He and another airman walked around the base, office to office, for hours with a jar making collections for the fund. Perez said within two hours he and his colleague gathered more than $1,000.
"I hope everyone gets the same feeling I got," he said. "I really think America is the most loving and caring country in the world, ... and now is the time for us to demonstrate that."
Bosarge said she appreciates the generosity and compassion that so many people have already shown her. "People have stopped me to offer money or any kind of assistance for my family," she said. "The support has been wonderful."
The way ahead for the Bosarge family will be challenging, but not without hope.
"Eventually my family will have to rebuild and relocate, but they were like many families in the area -- unwilling to leave," she said. "Unfortunately, this decision cost many people their lives."
Bosarge said she is ultimately thankful her family remains alive to start anew. "My family lost almost everything, but they're still alive, and they still have each other," she said.
(Air Force Senior Airman Amaani Lyle is assigned to the 52nd Fighter Wing public affairs office.)