KEY FIELD, Miss. (AP) – Captain Adam Wright was 16 years old when Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi and left a deadly path of destruction that extended far inland.
His family lost two pieces of land along the coast and, like many others in the state, spent weeks in Jackson without electricity.
"We had the army in my neighborhood delivering food and water because they just could not get on," he said. "I remember when I was a younger child, saw the army there and helped and how it felt."
Fourteen years later, Wright is in charge of a special disaster response team at Key Field in Meridian, which is deployed across the country to assist state and local authorities in preparing and recovering.
The ground team of the Mississippi Air National Guard's 186th refueling wing is the first of its kind, Wright said.
Members have responded to hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires and other disasters over the past four years.
Two to three days before a storm is expected, the Guardsmen are on hand with everything they would have in combat except weapons and armor, Wright said.
"They have civil authorities and you have federal agencies that do not necessarily work with planes that often," Wright said. "We have the know-how to work with these aircraft and have special search and rescue backgrounds and other backgrounds to help them make effective use of the aircraft."
The guards use a system that allows them to talk to military and civilian crews, gather information about damaged infrastructure, and help rescue storm victims, according to Master Sgt. William Defoor.
"We recognized early on that there is a great language barrier between civilian and military units," said Lieutenant Colonel Ab Deutschland, the team's chief of operations.
In many cases, people from government and local authorities could respond to disasters that have damaged their own homes, he said.
"You are very thankful," said Germany. "The feedback we receive is always positive and overwhelming."
The team worked during Hurricane Irma in 2017 and last month five guards responded to Hurricane Dorian.
The original plan was to go to Florida, but Dorian's track changed and the team received a request from the Air National Guard headquarters in South Carolina, Wright said.
"Within six hours of the request we were on the way," he said.
The guards carried planes and inspected neighborhoods to make sure bridges and roads were safe, Wright said.
The team's technology makes it possible to see what planes can see, but from the ground up.
Members use a mobile radio trailer, radios, tactical vests and night vision devices.
Maj. Jonathan Thompson of the South Carolina Air National Guard gave the team a clear picture of the impact of the hurricane after nightfall.
"They were able to update those things on a computer system that we have … so that we and the emergency management department could see a real-time update of what they saw," Thompson said.
"One of the reasons we get so used to it is that we're put in that position to be a problem solver," Wright said. "With Harvey, for example, communication down there was terrible, they could not talk to the Army HQ, they could not talk to emergency management."
The team drove into storm-damaged parts of Houston and released aircraft with a limited amount of fuel to fly to hard-to-reach places, Wright said.
"We had to send in planes … and help the Coast Guard find out where they should be taken from their homes and put into buses and Humvees just to drive them out of the flooded areas," said Senior Master Sgt. Brad Slocum, who spent two weeks in Texas. "It was nice to be able to help them."
One of the members traveled to Alaska this summer to help firefighters fight forest fires.
"We watch the fires go at them and make sure they are not overrun by the fire," Wright said.
If the guardsmen do not train for disasters, they train the flight crew and work on other local and war-fighting missions, Wright said.
"When the hurricane season occurs, this will be our top priority," he said.
Wright said he wants to expand the team, which currently has no more than nine members.
"If we arrive in time to see something and make sure the planes are showing the right areas, it can save lives."
Information from: The Meridian Star, http://www.meridianstar.com