Keesler officials say large appropriations protect base

Published 7:09 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Keesler Air Force Base officials were worried about the facility’s future after Hurricane Katrina inundated it with water, but the millions of federal dollars they’ve gotten for reconstruction efforts has eased those concerns.

Keesler officials believe the $313.9 million appropriated by Congress for them to build 1,067 homes, which will be let in a single contract, could be the biggest single appropriation of its kind in Air Force history.

“We’re here,” said Brig. Gen. Paul Capasso, Commander of the 81st Training Wing, at an editorial board meeting with the Sun Herald at Keesler last week. “We’re here to stay.”

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In the year since Katrina struck last Aug. 29, Keesler has been bustling with activity.

“All the support infrastructure pretty much blew away,” said Capasso, who took over command just as Katrina started building in the Gulf of Mexico.

Keesler, with its post-basic-training training center that turns out about 30,000 graduates a year, state-of-the-art medical facility thousands of patients rely on and other operations, should have ground to a halt after an event like Katrina.

“The initial assessment was six months until training could resume,” said Lt. Col. Ray Motley, commander of the 81st Civil Engineering Squad. “On the 19th of September (2005), training resumed.”

According to Keesler officials, the center has turned out 24,624 graduates in fiscal year 2006. The center had 2,716 students in class on the day before Katrina; that number last week was 3,569, according to 81st Training Wing records.

The medical center also has been way ahead of schedule in its rebuilding.

Brig. Gen. James Dougherty, commander of the 81st Medical Group, said they had planned on not resuming inpatient services at the hospital until October 2006 because of all the water that flooded their facilities. They were able to start taking patients by mid-August and had an official ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark its reopening Aug. 29.

Dougherty said the base also has seen opportunity arise from the hurricane, as cooperation between his medical center and the VA complex down the road has increased dramatically as each seeks to fill in where the other needs help. Additionally, the medical center has signed memoranda of understanding with several local universities to help train each other’s students.

Katrina also taught Keesler officials and the military as a whole some valuable lessons, said Capasso.

“We’re more prepared today,” said Capasso, adding if a storm like Katrina came again, they would do things differently. “You probably wouldn’t see anybody here.”

Though many personnel stayed on base during the hurricane, no lives were lost.

Military-installation officials across the country took note of what happened to Keesler during Katrina, and have better plans in place for disasters as a result, Capasso said.