Troops in Pacific ‘holding out hope’ after Katrina’s wrath
It’s half a world away, but the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina last week never is far from the minds of many Pacific-based members of the military community.
Charles Lowe, a New Orleans native who works for the 374th Airlift Wing’s safety office at Yokota Air Base, Japan, said Thursday his younger sister, Dora, hasn’t been heard from since Katrina roared ashore two days earlier. She and her two daughters, ages 10 and 7, chose to ride out the storm at a retirement home where she works in the city’s lower Ninth Ward — one of the areas floodwaters hit hardest.
Lowe said he and his wife, Regina, are on the phone every day, desperate for updates.
“Dora was talking to my younger sister the night it hit,” Lowe said, adding that two aunts and numerous cousins also are missing. “She said the water was up to her knees and coming in fast. Then, the phone went out, and we haven’t heard anything from her since.”
Lowe also spoke to Dora by phone every hour as Katrina made landfall — until all communication was cut.
“She told me, ‘Somebody has got to stay with them,’ ” he said. “The retirement home was made of brick, and she figured it’d be safe for her children and the seniors.
“She could hear debris hitting the building when the winds were coming in. She said, ‘Brother, I don’t know if I made the right decision.’ I tried to reassure her, saying everything was gonna be all right.”
Lowe said he’s glued to TV reports, hoping to spot his sister or another familiar face. “You don’t know anything … that’s the toughest part,” he said. “But I’m holding out hope. … I believe everything’s gonna be all right.”
Petty Officer 1st Class Gerald Harper, U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa’s property management lead petty officer, also has had no contact with family members who live throughout the devastated region — Forest and Gulfport, Miss., and New Orleans.
“I’ve been trying to call but all the lines are down and there’s no electricity,” he said. “I got ahold of a cousin in Mobile, but she hasn’t heard from any of them. It’s frustrating.”
The continuing inability to reach folks at home is wearing on family members overseas.
“It’s almost like we’re back in the 18th century,” said Marquitte Fland at Yongsan Garrison, South Korea, who has been unable to contact family members in Bogalusa, La. “It’s just unfortunate that it’s taking so long … seemed like no one was really prepared.”
Fland and her husband, Chris, have been unable to contact more than a dozen family members since the storm hit Bogalusa.
She was on the phone with her brother as the storm approached when the line went dead.
The last thing he said, according to Fland, was “It’s going OK.”
Some may count Chief Petty Officer Edward David, an engineering aide chief at Naval Air Facility Misawa Public Works in northern Japan, as lucky: His family is safe in the Philippines.
He’s thankful for that. But his property was directly in the path of Katrina’s fury and he fears he lost almost everything.
His single-story brick house in Gulfport, Miss., one he bought more than a decade ago while stationed at the Seabees’ Naval Construction Battalion Center there, was near where a 30-foot storm surge barreled ashore, leaving a swath of destruction.
“I want to go back but everything is pretty much gone,” he said. “A lot of my money was invested in that property.”
David hasn’t been able to reach the renters or any of his friends who live in the area.
“I’m praying that everybody left,” he said, adding that he also worries about 12,000 pounds of his household goods the Navy was storing in Gulfport while he completed a two-year unaccompanied tour at Misawa. The goods were to be shipped to the Philippines this week. “That’s pretty much all I own,” he said.
He said his biggest concern, besides his neighbors’ and friends’ welfare, is having to pay a mortgage for a house that no longer may exist. He has flood insurance but counts on nothing. As soon as basic services are restored, David hopes to return to Gulfport to file insurance claims as soon as basic services are restored.
For now, he’s thinking of postponing the retirement he’d been planning for after his Misawa tour. “Right now, where will I go?” he asked.
Being thousands of miles from family, friends and familiar places in Katrina’s wake isn’t easy for troops here.
Second Lt. Christopher Bush at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, has heard that most of his immediate family evacuated their home in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie and was safe — except for an aunt and uncle still unaccounted for Thursday.
Bush said the plight of his family and others in the storm-ravaged region weighs heavily on him.
“It’s very difficult … I wish I was there with them to get through this. We’ve been through other hurricanes and tropical storms down there, and I know how trying it can be.”
Vince Little, Fred Zimmerman, Jennifer H. Svan, Franklin Fisher, T.D. Flack, Greg Tyler and Seth Robson contributed to this story.
Military hot lines
Army Reserve family members and soldiers affected by Hurricane Katrina now have a way to contact the Army Reserve through a call center.
The number is (877) 464-9330. Phones will be manned 24 hours a day. Operators will take down information to aid deployed Army Reserve soldiers in determining the status and whereabouts of their families affected by Hurricane Katrina.
The U.S. Navy has established a 24-hour help line for family members seeking information about sailors caught up in Katrina, a Navy spokesman said.
The number also will allow sailors who had to evacuate to let their command know where they are, said Navy Lt. Herb Josey.
The number is (877) 414-5358.
In addition, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has set up a toll-free number for veterans who normally receive health care at VA facilities in New Orleans, Gulfport, Miss., and Biloxi, Miss. The number can also be used by family members concerned about the location of veterans who were hospitalized at those facilities. The Gulfport facility has been closed, and the New Orleans medical center has been evacuated.The Biloxi facility is still operational.
The number is 1-800-507-4571. It will be staffed continuously for the duration of the emergency.
— Stars and Stripes