SJAFB personnel part of Hurricane Katrina efforts
By Turner Walston
Published in News on December 27, 2005 1:49 PM
Two days after the Gulf Coast awoke to the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, the telephone in Col. Lennie Coleman's office rang.
Coleman is commander of the 4th Mission Support Group at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. His job is supporting disaster relief efforts around the world, wherever the Air Force's logistical and supply capabilities are needed.
This time, however, the call didn't come from Latin America or the Middle East. It came from federal officials trying to help the thousands of coastal residents who lost their homes in the storm and subsequent flooding.
"The call came in on Friday before Labor Day," Coleman said. "That was not what I'd planned to do that weekend."
The next day, a contingent of 22 airmen left Goldsboro for New Orleans International Airport. Their mission was to support the 4th Air Expeditionary Group stationed at the airport.
Despite having seen on TV the extent of the destruction wrought by Katrina, Coleman said walking into the middle of the real thing was something entirely different.
"We saw what was on TV, but really didn't have a lot of detailed information," Coleman said.
The scene was chaotic, with military and civilian officials trying to sort out what needed to be done first.
"It was a little bit confusing, kind of exciting. But I was somewhere to make a difference and get the area headed in the right direction," Coleman said.
The airmen from Seymour Johnson joined an Air Force group of about 920 airmen, from about 26 bases, including Pope Air Force Base.
From Sept. 3 through Oct. 2, they were stationed at the airport to support Army troops and civil agencies working in the city. The group set up 175 expeditionary tents, Coleman said, 125 of which were used by the Army. In a reversal of roles, the Air Force became the ground support for the Army.
Coleman said he worked with the Army commanders, who were primarily from Fort Bragg. They included Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, commander of the 82nd Airborne. The two branches of the service worked well together, Coleman said.
"They saw the capabilities of our engineers," he said. "Gen. Caldwell appreciated the support we gave them on the ground."
That support included setting up an emergency hospital with 225 personnel, who helped about 3,600 evacuees leave the city through MediVac.
"They did some amazing work," Coleman said. "They helped the people of New Orleans who for a lot of the time couldn't help themselves."
Accomplishing a mission amid so much death and destruction requires emergency workers to put aside their emotions, Coleman said.
"You had to," Coleman said, adding that the first night was the most difficult. The scene resembled the aftermath of a battle, with buildings and other infrastructure ruined.
"It was not what I was prepared for. Not to that level of exposure. It was almost like a wet blanket hitting you in the face," he said. The feeling of sadness and loss can be overwhelming, Coleman said. Concentrating on the job is the only way to put aside personal feelings.
"You don't separate it. What you do is overcome it," he said.
"That was how we dealt with a lot of what we saw."
The airmen worked 14-hour days to create a temporary tent city in an abandoned gravel pit and to begin the task of clearing streets and roads. They wore out 20 chain saws while helping Army troops clear 225 blocks of New Orleans.
Coleman said cooperation among the military and local, state and federal authorities was the key to recovery.
"It was an inter-agency operations center where everybody said, 'What do you need?'" Coleman said.
Coleman said even he was surprised by how rapidly progress was made in rebuilding the airport.
"When I got there, I was pretty sure that international airport would never reopen. Because of trash and just human waste, I thought we would have to bulldoze the facility," he said.
But on Sept. 13, nine days after the Air Expeditionary Group arrived, the first commercial flight since the storm hit was able to take off.
When the airmen and soldiers turned over the reconstruction work to contractors, they left with a sense of accomplishment.
"We truly did leave New Orleans a better place," he said.
Coleman said he was the last of the Air Expeditionary Group to depart New Orleans International Airport. He said a sense of accomplishment came over him as he helped load the last crates onto a truck.
"We'd done our job," he said. "It was time now to turn it over to the local authorities. Turn it over and heal wounds."
The realization that the mission was over hit him suddenly, Coleman said.
"It was sobering. I was almost numb, because it happened so fast, and we'd done so much," he said.
Coleman said he had never been to New Orleans before Katrina but said he plans to go back again. He said the 4th Air Expeditionary Group will be ready the next time a disaster creates a need. He said the Seymour Johnson team picked up valuable experience during the month it spent in Louisiana.
"After the actions and lessons learned here, they all showed that they're ready, and they really want to help."
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