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GCN Special Report

Another Katrina Victim: Fight To Save Gulfport Armed Forces Retirement Home Underway

DoD Favors Closing Beachfront Complex.  Taylor Protests Cost & Desire To Relocate Home.

By Perry Hicks- Special to GCN   Filed 4/18/06         

(See Related Story: Congressmen Inspect Military Retirement Home -Editor)

"While the report proposes five “options” for the Naval Home, only two of them actually recommend reopening the facility at Gulfport." - In letter from Congressman Gene Taylor to Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense.

There is more to the destruction of homes on the Mississippi Coast from Katrina than would meet the eye. A Coast landmark, the Armed Forces Retirement complex in Gulfport, a home for nearly 600 veterans, was severely damaged and remains empty nearly eight months since the hurricane and is another victim of Hurricane Katrina's wrath. The Gulfport home is one of two such facilities in the nation.

The Department of Defense has reportedly spent $45 million studying what to do with twin Armed Forces Retirement Homes (AFRH) located in Washington, D.C. and Gulfport, Mississippi.  Despite this heady sum, neither Senator Trent Lott nor Representative Gene Taylor is particularly happy with the recommendations.

As evidenced by the report, AFRH sees relocating away from the immediate shoreline the preferred option.  Additionally, there is also a strong need to not just restore the facility, but to rebuild it to meet the future challenges of caring for large numbers of severely disabled veterans.

As GCN has previously reported, the nature of injuries resulting from roadside and roadway imbedded bombs and other explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan are truly horrific.

Owing combat realities of the War on Terror, the likelihood of younger residents needing extensive specialized care is greatly elevated.  While the current youngest retirement home resident is about 41, it is quite possible for a resident to be as young as 18 years of age. 

“Many equate the (Armed Forces) retirement homes as some kind of country-club,” said Sheila Abarr, spokeswoman for AFRH, “This is really not the case and certainly will not be in the future.”

Sheila then went on to say, “Medical science is making it possible for our fighting men and women to survive wounds that would have killed them just a few years ago.  They are over there putting themselves in harm’s way for their country and we owe it to them to care for them when they return.”

Known as the U.S. Naval Home for over 111 years, the Armed Forces Retirement Home- Gulfport now sits vacant as it awaits Congress’s direction to repair, rebuild, or be sold at fair market value.  Its first floor lay in ruins and vital mechanical systems have reportedly been destroyed.

Present Home Not ADA Compliant

While it is quite possible to restore the existing complex to its former condition, the reality is that the resident tower is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.

The halls are wide and equipped with handrails but the rooms are tiny measuring only 90 square feet.  Each room has a lavatory however bathing facilities are communal.

Based on experience garnered from the original U.S. Naval Home formerly located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the present 11 story tower was designed to improve the quality of life by coaxing residents out of their rooms so that they might socialize and otherwise interact with other people.

Construction of the present facility was begun in 1974 and first opened to residents in 1976. For many years, its population lingered around 330 residents, a number only sufficient to half fill the 11 story residential tower.

While small rooms are helpful for the elderly needing to steady themselves as they move from bed to lavatory, “The present rooms are too small for people with wheelchairs and of course offer much less privacy,” Abarr told GCN.

As such, one proposal is to erect an all new tower having 450 square foot rooms.  “This would allow a small sitting area where residents could interact with grandchildren and other visitors in private,” Abarr said.  Each room could also accommodate private bathing.

There would obviously also be a need to expand the number of beds available in the future.

Proposal before Congress

In the report summary from to Congress dated February 28th, 2006, five options have been sent up to Congress regarding the fate of the Gulfport campus.  As Taylor complains, only two would maintain the facility in its present location.

  • Option #1, at the total cost of $589.54 million would restore the home over a span of 6 phases.
  • Option #2, would demolish the existing tower and rebuild the home to meet both future needs and ADA compliance. The cost: $383.8 million.
  • Option #3 would align AFRH- Gulfport with something called Coastal Renewal Vision, turning AFRH-Gulfport into a “blended use” facility and ending AFRH presence on the Coast.  Price tag: $85.5 million.
  • Option #4 would relocate the facility to another undetermined location. Cost also $85.5 million.
  • Option #5 would be to abandon the Gulfport facility by selling it at fair market value with the proceeds going to the AFRH trust fund.  Cost said to be unknown but minimal.

Surprisingly, Option #2 is not only stated to be less expensive than Option #1; AFRB claims it would get all residents back into Gulfport more quickly.  The 6 phase process of Option 1, according to Congressman Gene Taylor, would take 13 years to execute.

The explanation for the difference, according to AFRH, is that repairing the existing tower requires extensive changes to relocate vital mechanical equipment, generators, pharmacy, medical beds to a second floor level and expansion of the building to accommodate more beds.  All of this would have to been done in phases with minimal residency at each construction step of the way.

Congressional Response

When queried, Senator Trent Lott’s office advised GCN that the senator favored reconstructing the facility where it is and that congress has already allocated $200 million, sufficient to make the home an “A-plus” facility. Furthermore, Lott considers $80 million sufficient to restore the home to its former “C-plus” condition.

However, 4th Congressional Representative, Gene Taylor, in a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, has taken considerable umbrage at both the cited costs and preference to remove the facility from Gulfport.

Of particular offense to Taylor were statements in the report’s main body stating, according to Taylor’s correspondence, “… numerous biased statements such as, “It seems ‘unconscionable’ to put residents back in ‘harms way’ in terms of potential future hurricanes” and “a return to Gulfport will signal the Government ‘gold seal’ that every thing is safe.”

Taylor made it clear that such “statements are offensive to me and the people I represent.”  He also went on to compare the report’s recommendations to President Bush’s public commitment to rebuild the federal facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina at the January 12th press conference in Hancock County.

Reconstruction costs also raised Taylor’s ire as he termed “eye-popping figures that cannot be taken seriously or justified under any reasonable analysis.”

The pending Katrina supplemental bill, now in conference, would in fact appropriate (by the Senate figure) $176 million. 

AFRH Handled Storm Well

When Katrina roared ashore August 29th, 2006, the Gulfport home was filled to its practical capacity of 564 residents.  414 rode out the storm as 150 had voluntarily evacuated in their own cars.

As has been the practice in prior storms, the Seabees and staff had prepared the home in advance by installing large metal plates over the tower’s front facing ground floor doors and windows.

These preparations spared much of the residential tower from damage.  Taylor’s letter to Rumsfeld, the congressman asserted, “I have toured the facility, and I can attest to the fact that the dwellings that are not on the ground floor level were largely untouched by the effects of the storm.”

Abarr pointed out that the Gulfport home’s elevation is 20.6 feet above sea level. Despite some eyewitness accounts of a 28 to 35 foot surge along the Gulfport beachfront storm preparations only allowed water to rise inside the building to about 3 or 4 feet..

“The first floor did not flood to the second as it was rumored,” Sheila Abarr told GCN, “and water actually entered from the rear of the building.”

 However, some of the mechanical equipment necessary to run the tower is below ground level and an emergency generator is located in an outlying building.  Storm surge wrecked this equipment.

Besides the main lobby, cafeteria and administrative offices, the ground floor also housed the pharmacy and a 50 bed nursing facility.  All of those on the ground level had to be evacuated to the second floor.  This was done quickly and with no injuries reported.

As the tower building could no longer be cooled and food prepared, the home was evacuated the very next day via tour buses that had been pre-staged away from Katrina’s reach. (Kitchen - Photo Right)

10 residents were evacuated to a long-term care facility in Mobile, Alabama, 60 went first to Maxwell Air Force Base near Montgomery, Alabama, and the remainders were transported directly to the AFRH campus (formerly Soldiers & Airmen’s Home) in Washington, D.C.

Currently, the former resident’s personal belongings are being packed for shipment back to their respective owners.

 Additional Information:

Funding measures to rebuild the retirement home passed the U.S. Senate 5/4/06.

Letter from Cong. Gene Taylor to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on the Retirement home.

Fact Sheet on Gulfport Military Retirement Home (.pdf file)

About the Author.....

Perry Hicks is the senior writer for GCN. He is a former Mississippi Coast resident and was a correspondent for the old Gulfport Star Journal. He has appeared on Fox News Channel. Perry has also hosted his own radio talk show on the auto industry with a mix of politics. Perry is a former college professor and a frequent contributor to GCN writing on stories of national importance with local interests. His articles can be found in the GCN Archive.

Contact the Author: arielsquarefour@hotmail.com

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