Military communities cope with tragedy

Tom Philpott

The number of service people displaced by Hurricane Katrina was still being calculated more than two weeks after the storm devastated coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

However, it was clear that thousands of active-duty members, reservists and retirees had lost homes, cars and other property.

Indeed, when military victims of Katrina are finally counted, they will most likely outnumber the 72,000 National Guard and active duty forces deployed to the tri-state area to assist with rescue, relief and security operations.

What military communities have that others might lack during catastrophes are proven command structures, their own emergency relief societies, solid family support systems and robust information networks run both by the services and military associations, and linked across the Internet.

Like countless other Katrina victims, military folks suffered great losses. Military evacuees needed food, shelter, clothing and advice on restoring order to their lives.

However, days before Katrina hit, military relief societies had begun to help families order to evacuate with offers of interest-free loans. Bases outside Katrina’s path prepared to receive thousands of military evacuees.

After the storm, the Defense Department granted “alternative safe haven’’ authority to families of military and Defense employees to relocate anywhere within continental United State for up to six months with per diem payments to cover their lodging, meals and incidentals expense.

An estimated 350,000 active duty and reserve, military retirees and service dependents reside in counties hit by Katrina. That figure includes the southern Florida counties through which Katrina passed before intensifying over the Gulf of Mexico.

Humana Military Healthcare Services, TRICARE contractor for the southern region, estimates that 136,000 military beneficiaries have been displaced. Humana is conducting a week-long outreach effort to advise displaced persons of their benefits, sending representatives or information packets to almost 600 American Red Cross shelters.

TRICARE beneficiaries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama can reach Humana at 1-800-444-5445 or online at:

TRICARE’s other two regional contractors have been directed to provide care to evacuees and to settle accounts later with Humana.

“There is a lot of heroic work like that going on,’’ said Joyce Raezer, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association.

Other resources are available to military people through Military One Source at 1-800-342-9647 or online at:

Most displaced service families are Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard. Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., ordered 14,000 students, staff and civilian workers evacuated, leaving 2,000 “essential’’ personnel to protect the base and restore vital operations.

Keesler suffered heavy damage with at least 1,000 of 1,800 housing units destroyed. Its hospital, a major regional facility, was flooded. Even if a serious mold problem can be avoided, the facility likely will take months to reopen.

“That impacts a lot of people,’’ said Jim Delaney, chief operating officer for the Air Force Aid Society.

The aid society, through mid-September, provided $320,000 in financial help to military Katrina victims. Many Air Force families, he said, were sent to other bases, including Maxwell AFB, Montgomery, Ala., Barksdale AFB, in Shreveport, La., Little Rock AFB, Ark., and Lackland AFB in San Antonio.

“Someone showed up the other day in Buffalo, N.Y. and we were able to help them,’’ Delaney said.

AFAS and sister aid societies make loans or grants while being as “non-bureaucratic’’ as possible, Delaney said. The goal is to provide immediate financial help and decide months later who can repay. Military relief societies also distribute phone cards so displaced persons can keep in touch families.

John Alexander, of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, said his group had approved loans or grants of $1.4 million to more than 3,700 “clients” from Gulfport and Pascagoula, Miss., who are expected to resettle in Fort Worth, Houston or Pensacola.

The aid money might be just enough, he said, to cover rental security deposits or a first month’s rent.

Hardest hit base was Naval Station Pascagoula, already tagged for closure by the latest BRAC Commission. Ships there were redeployed to safe harbors but hundreds of sailors’ cars parked pier-side were destroyed. Gulfport Naval Station also sustained heavy damage though Seabees have returned and begun repairs.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: