Airport fraternity answers Biloxi's call for help

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on September 15, 2005.

Kurt Ferguson got the call at 10 a.m. Sept. 1.

His instructions were simple: Be on a plane that afternoon. Be ready to help.

"I left a note for the missis on the table: 'Gone to Biloxi,' " he said. "She understood."

By the time he got to to talk to his wife to make sure she understood, Ferguson, building engineer at Jacksonville International Airport, was in the midst of helping Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in Mississippi get back on its feet after Hurricane Katrina.

Jacksonville International Airport is one of the members of a regional group dedicated to helping airports that are devastated by hurricanes. In the wake of Katrina, JIA and other airports sent dozens of workers to help the Biloxi airport recover.

Workers from Jacksonville started showing up with five teams of maintenance, management, operations and security employees spending various amounts of time there through Saturday.

When Ferguson arrived, he was greeted at the airport by a sight that television reports hadn't prepared him for.

Buildings missing roofs. Those roofs scattered over the grounds. Fences down. A boat sitting on a runway.

"It was worse than I expected," Ferguson said.

The airport received $40 million or more in damage, airport officials have said, with the terminal building, cargo facilities, control tower and runway lights all hit hard. The airport, about three miles from the ocean, was wracked by the hurricane's winds as well as flood damage from two nearby creeks.

Within nine days, with the help of workers from a number of nearby airports, including 28 Jacksonville Airport Authority employees, the airport was in good enough shape that commercial flights could be added to the mix of relief planes that had been arriving. According to the Biloxi airport Web site, AirTran, Delta, Continental and Northwest airlines were all operating at least a few flights into the area.

Biloxi's call for help went out as the extent of the damage became clear.

The Biloxi airport is a member of the Southeast Airports Disaster Operations Group, an association that officially came into being at the end of July, the result of the head of the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport working toward such a group in the wake of last year's hurricanes.

"Airports are like a fraternity," said Patrick Graham, executive director of the Savannah, Ga., airport. "All we had to do was start making the calls."

A team from Savannah started moving toward Mississippi even before the storm hit, Graham said, holing up in Pensacola and then heading into Biloxi the day after Katrina passed.

"That's when they need you to be there," he said. "The people there are in shock. They need you. They need people that are not affected by the situation that can take orders."

Some of those orders were given by Sedrick Rivers, chief of the Jacksonville Airport Authority police department. Rivers showed up in Biloxi on Sept. 6, having already sent a team of police personnel to help the airport secure its perimeter and get security functioning again.

Taking over those tasks, Rivers said, took some of the burden off the local officers, dozens of whom had lost their homes. "They were having to work the entire time. A lot of them just had time to go home and assess their losses and come back to work without even a day off," he said. "We were able to give them time to take care of what they needed to."

The various Jacksonville personnel are all back home now, although there's a chance they might be needed as the cleanup continues. Once the initial crisis passed, authority passed to national organizations, and help has started flowing in from places like Minnesota and Ohio.

The Jacksonville workers aren't going to forget what they saw in Mississippi. Now, they're thinking about what they can learn from the situation that might help Jacksonville if a hurricane picks the First Coast as its next target.

"We're going to learn from this," said Danette Bewley, director of Jacksonville International Airport. "You learn more, hurricane by hurricane."

The one thing she is sure of is that if Jacksonville is hit, she'll know where to turn for help.

"In this industry, you can really lean on your sister or brother airport for support," she said. "When someone is in dire need, everyone chips in."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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