Katrina: Riding Through the Monster
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
GULFPORT, Miss., Sept. 12, 2005 As Hurricane Katrina approached, most Mississippians evacuated the area. But some had to stay to help their fellow citizens.
Lt. Col. Russell Madderra of Gulfport, Miss., stares at memories only he can see of Hurricane Katrina. Madderra is commander of the Mississippi Air National Guard's Combat Readiness Training Center at the Trent Lott Training Center in Gulfport. Photo by 2nd Lt. Murray Shugars, Mississippi National Guard
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"We rode that monster out right here," said Mississippi Air National Guard Lt. Col. Russell Madderra, speaking in his office at the Trent Lott Combat Readiness Training Center here. The center shares the Gulfport airport, and is about five miles from the coast.
Madderra and 12 staff members stayed at the center to be ready for operations once Katrina passed through the area. "I would rather have been getting shot at in Iraq or Afghanistan," the colonel said. "It was the damndest thing I've ever been in in 32 years of military service."
Katrina's eye wall passed right over the center, and the Gulf of Mexico traveled with it. When the only building on the base that survived Hurricane Camille in 1969 collapsed, he said, he and his staff doubted they were going to survive. "We all were hitting the knee," he said.
Miraculously, no one was killed on the base, but when Katrina passed, the runway was flooded. "Airport Road had five feet of water on it," he said. "A boat had floated up on my runway."
Even today, you can see by the water marks on the trees and buildings how high the water level had been. Madderra and his staff tried to get off base to help people closer to the coast. "I knew there were people in worse shape than us, but the water was so deep, we couldn't get vehicles through," he said. "We had 5-ton trucks that will operate in five feet of water, but it was deeper than that in many places."
He and his staff also had lost communications, so his priority was to clear the runways and taxiways for aid to arrive and to reestablish links with the outside world. "Before the storm, we had a great plan of operations," he said. "But the storm was so large and so powerful that it caused massive changes in our plan. We rolled with it."
It was a "purple operation" from the start. Madderra's people worked with the Mississippi National Guard's 890th Engineer Battalion to set up an alternate tactical operations center. The group worked to open roads and communications with other emergency personnel.
Mississippi Guard military police companies pushed through the latter half of the hurricane to reach Gulfport and began patrolling even as the winds were dying down.
The control tower on the civilian side of the airport had taken some serious hits from the storm, and the Federal Aviation Administration chief asked Madderra if the Mississippi Guard could take over the operation of what was becoming a crucial rescue and recovery hub. Mississippi authorities called up the 248th Air Traffic Control Squadron based in Meridian. Within hours, the squadron was in Gulfport handling air control over the region.
Aviation assets streamed into the base. "The roads were blocked by debris and water," the colonel said. "Helicopters were the only way to get food and water in to those areas."
During one mission, Madderra saw a group of people standing on an overpass. "We dropped down to see if they were all right or if they needed anything," he said. "They saw us and motioned us away, then held up their cell phones. Turned out that overpass was the only place with connectivity. Even in a tragedy, you can still get a laugh."
National Guard units from other states poured into the area to help in rescue and recovery efforts. Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, Arkansas and Indiana all sent personnel and equipment, and all arrived in the first day after the storm passed. The airport supported all sorts of helicopters, including OH-58s Kiowas, UH-1 Hueys, UH-60 Black Hawks, CH-476 Chinooks and Navy and Marine CH-53s. The Air Force's fixed-wing big boys - C-5s, C-17s and C-130s - landed to deliver critical supplies.
The center now has 7,100 personnel living on it from more than 20 states. All have fallen in on the Mississippi Guard's infrastructure and are working to help the residents of the Gulf Coast.
And the Mississippi guardsmen themselves continue their relief work even in the face of personal catastrophes. "I have 30 people here who now are the proud owners of slabs - their houses and all their belongings have been totally destroyed," Madderra said. "I have 100 to 130 people whose houses are uninhabitable. Yet they haven't missed a day. They will help their fellow citizens before they pick up their own lives."