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BEAR Base members reflect on Hurricane Katrina

KOAT Channel 7 reporter Mr. Jeffrey DeMars attaches a microphone to Staff Sgt. Robert Dwyer, 49th Mission Support Squadron, prior to an interview about the one-year anniversary of the BEAR Base JTF Katrina deployment. Mr. DeMars covered the deployment as an embedded reporter assigned to the 49th Material Maintenence Group at the New Orleans airport.

KOAT Channel 7 reporter Mr. Jeffrey DeMars attaches a microphone to Staff Sgt. Robert Dwyer, 49th Mission Support Squadron, prior to an interview about the one-year anniversary of the BEAR Base JTF Katrina deployment. Mr. DeMars covered the deployment as an embedded reporter assigned to the 49th Material Maintenence Group at the New Orleans airport.

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- This time last year about three dozen Airmen from Holloman's 49th Materiel Maintenance Group were in the middle of one of the nation's largest natural disasters -- the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

The first team of 14 Airmen from Holloman arrived at New Orleans's Louis B. Armstrong International Airport Sept. 3. They would be part of about 40 Airmen who would deploy from Holloman to Joint Task Force Katrina. The 1,277 tons of Basic Expeditionary Airfield Resource equipment they brought with them would bed down thousands of relief workers at various locations in the Gulf Coast region. 

The scene that greeted Senior Master Sgt. David Berridge, 49th Materiel Maintenance Support Squadron Team Chief was one of organized chaos. A veteran of many overseas deployments, Sergeant Berridge was surprised to see there was no preparation for the arrival of the Forty-niners and their equipment. 

"We off-loaded our equipment from the C-5s at the West end of the airport where the Air Force Contingency Response Team was operating," said Sergeant Berridge. "It was really a busy place with military aircraft landing, unloading and taking off again. No one seemed to know we were coming or where we should set up, so I went to work scouting the area looking for a site to build the 550 set we came in with." 

Also on the ground that first day was Staff Sgt. Robert Dwyer, 49 MMSS, who said the confusion of the New Orleans airport was unlike any of his overseas deployments.
"It was different in the sense that we were still in the United States, but there was actually less things for our support there than what we normally see," said Sergeant Dwyer. "When we go (overseas) we are usually at a location that is already established to some degree." 

Right away, Sergeant Berridge learned the best way to get around the vast area of the airport was to borrow a vehicle. 

"We were told that if we found a vehicle with keys in it we could use it. It was understood that if you went somewhere on one of the aircraft tugs it might be gone when you went back to it and you would have to look for another one for the return trip," explained Sergeant Berridge. "Once the airport contractors came back to work we gave them back their vehicles." 

Within three days, the team grew to more than two dozen with the arrival of another team that was diverted. Airmen worked from sun up to sundown in the hot, muggy Louisiana sun, setting up tents, moving equipment, swatting mosquitos and eating MREs. The combined group would direct and assist the setting up of a tent city to house Air Force aid workers who had been sleeping for a week in the airport terminal building. They also trained and assisted soldiers from the U.S.Army's 82nd Airborne Division who had begun security patrols into the city of New Orleans. 

Another BEAR Base team had landed at Gulf Port, Miss. where Materiel Maintenance Group Airmen set up a tent city for Army and Air Force reservists who were working out of the Gulf Port Airport. 

After about three weeks on the ground in New Orleans, the team got a taste of what the local residents had experienced as Hurricane Rita, a category-three hurricane, came ashore. The team rode out the storm in the airport terminal building with the other Federal disaster workers. 

A year later, Sergeant Berridge says, there were good lessons learned from the Group's deployment. 

"Hurricane season has started and we've already begun checking equipment in the event we get the call."