2005 - Hurrican Katrina Relief Operations


Hurricane Katrina, with winds as high as 140 miles per hour, made landfall near Buras, Louisiana, on August 29, 2005, devastating parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama with storm surge as high as 25 feet. The dense population of New Orleans was hardest hit, and failures of floodwalls and levees left approximately 80 percent of the city flooded for weeks, leaving nearly 100,000 residents struggling to survive as they awaited rescue. As this major humanitarian crisis unfolded, the Department of Defense, including the U.S. Air Force, responded.

The U.S. Air Force responded prior to Katrina's landfall with WC-130 weather reconnaissance aircraft. The Air Force Reserve Command's 53d Weather Reconnaissance Squadron helped track the storm and measure its intensity as it swirled in the Gulf of Mexico. The "Hurricane Hunters" logged more than 109 flight hours between August 23 and 29. After Katrina's landfall, the Department of Defense established Joint Task Force Katrina at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, under the command of Lt. Gen. Russell L. Honore. Air Force Maj. Gen. M. Scott Mayes, Commander of First Air Force, served as the Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC), and established the 1st Aerospace Expeditionary Task Force-Katrina at Tyndall AFB, Florida, which oversaw several air expeditionary groups. A week after landfall, Air Force personnel in the area numbered nearly 8,000 active duty, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reservists.

Air Force helicopters played a key role during relief operations, particularly in New Orleans, where they not only flew damage assessment teams into ravaged areas, but also performed extensive search and rescue operations. Using MH-53 Pave Low, HH-60 Pavehawk, and UH-1 helicopters from bases across the country, the Air Force rescued 4,322 people. In one day, the members of the 347th Expeditionary Rescue Group rescued 791 people. In addition to rescuing survivors, the Air Force deployed Air National Guard Expeditionary Medical Support (EMEDS) teams for the first time in a domestic crisis. EMEDS teams were set up in New Orleans, Gulfport, Mississippi, and Hancock County, Mississippi.

The U.S. Air Force also flew hundreds of fixed-wing sorties using C-130s, C-17s, C-5s, and KC-135s to airlift people, equipment, and supplies into and out of the region. Air Force aircraft transported a total of 43,713 Joint Task Force Katrina support personnel into the area, and Air Force Contingency Response Wings deployed personnel to New Orleans International Airport to establish a base of operations. The U.S. Air Force also evacuated 2,602 patients from areas affected by Katrina. The Air Force also transported 26,943 people to temporary homes in more than 35 states. In one of the largest such missions, 89 aircraft airlifted nearly 10,000 refugees to Kelly Field, Lackland Air force Base, San Antonio, over 55 hours. The Air Force also performed other flying missions including spraying insecticide to help prevent disease outbreaks, E-3 AWACS aircraft performed air traffic control for more than 1,000 helicopters, and U-2 reconnaissance aircraft overflew the area, providing aerial imagery of affected areas. In total, the U.S. Air Force flew 648 helicopter sorties and 4,095 fixed-wing missions, 73 percent of which were flown by the Air National Guard.

Although there was a significant loss of life during and after Hurricane Katrina, the contributions of the U.S. Air Force within the overall Department of Defense response were significant and highlighted Air Force humanitarian relief capabilities. It also showed the dedication of Air Force personnel who did whatever was necessary to relieve the suffering of those who were affected by the disaster.

Capt Gregory Ball, USAFR, Ph.D.

Read the study by Daniel L. Haulman, AFHRA: 
The U.S. Air Force Response to Hurricane Katrina.

Read about the Air National Guard in this study by David P. Anderson, Senior Historian, Air National Guard History Program:
Storm Surge: the Role of the Air National Guard in Hurricane Katrina Relief Operations.