Katrina allows Airmen to help in new way

MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- I have always heard the Air Force takes care of its own in times of need. I have also seen this put into practice when Airmen and their families are struck by tragedy. 

The events following Hurricane Katrina last year showed me this concept in a brand new way as 347th RQW Airmen put their skills to the test; not to help their fellow military members as they do so often in combat, but to rescue fellow Americans in their greatest time of need. 

The Category 3 storm made landfall in the early morning of Aug. 29 near the Louisiana/Mississippi border, devastating the coastal area. When the levees surrounding New Orleans breached, a disastrous situation turned catastrophic. 

Although Moody officials had already planned to conduct civilian rescue operations, as is normal with any natural disaster of Katrina's scope, the unforeseen damage that occurred put those plans into action ... quickly. 

Aircrews and pararescuemen, some who had returned only days before from deployments to Iraq, volunteered to immediately redeploy and assist with the recovery effort. Maintenance and support Airmen were given a couple hours notice they too would be heading to support the effort. 

Only a day after the hurricane made landfall, 347th RQW Airmen and their Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard partners were already in the skies above the disaster zone, coming to the aid of their fellow Americans throughout the Gulf Coast region. 

For three weeks, rescue operations continued, culminating in the largest rescue operation in Air Force history, with more than 4,300 people owing their well-being to the fine Airmen of the 347th RQW and their fellow rescue units. 

I arrived to the 347th Expeditionary Rescue Group's staging area at Allen C. Thompson Air National Guard Base in Jackson, Miss., two days after operations began. Even though we were conducting business at home in the United States, I quickly noticed the work conditions were not much different from a wartime environment. 

While Jackson escaped the full brunt of Katrina's fury, it was still recovering from a significant blow. No electricity, phones, and extreme shortages of gas and other supplies made support operations difficult. 

Yet, once again, a group of dedicated Airmen stepped up to the challenge, working day and night to ensure the rescue mission continued. Many of these Airmen were members of the Mississippi Air National Guard, who were still recovering at home or had family members in the disaster area. 

Not once did I ever hear any of these Airmen complain about being at work. Actually, they went out of their way to thank the more than 400 deployed Airmen for helping their state. 

This help meant 24-hour-a-day operations for the first week of the rescue effort. The operations tempo was hectic to say the least. 

More than 20 HH-60G Pave Hawks lined the runway when not flying eight- to 12-hour missions. C-130 and C-17 aircraft arrived several times daily, bringing needed supplies and people as well as rescued victims. 

Aircrews constantly prepared for their next mission while maintenance Airmen scurried between aircraft, ensuring everything was ready for the next round of takeoffs occurring every couple of hours. 

Once the helicopters took to the air, the aircrews and PJs faced staggering challenges. The sheer number of victims needing to be rescued put the crews' capabilities and training to the test. One crew recorded more than 200 saves in one mission alone. 

But the Airmen couldn't rely solely on past training and experiences. Creative planning and execution was required since missions varied from picking up large groups of people from interstates to having PJs break through roofs to pull out stranded victims. 

Despite the challenging environment, the 347th ERQG stood at the forefront of a rescue mission the Air Force had never seen before. 

As this year's hurricane season hits its stride, Americans are once again preparing to deal with Mother Nature's fury. They can be comforted in knowing the Air Force will carry on its tradition of helping its own when needed most.