Only a few weeks ago, Keesler Air Force Base at Biloxi, Miss., was a bustling military education and medical center, the home of the 81st Training Wing.

Today, it's a staging base for hundreds of federal employees who fan out across the Gulf Coast performing rescue and recovery work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Employees from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, State Department, Environmental Protection Agency, Air Force and other parts of the government and the American Red Cross are living in dormitories that once housed Air Force students.

The dorms, built to withstand the shock of hurricane winds, are in good shape. But half of the 2,000 homes on the base were destroyed by Katrina, including the home of the wing commander, Brig. Gen. William T. Lord.

"Many of us barely have any personal possessions any more," Lord said in a telephone interview. "We're figuring out our personal lives, while helping the local community with humanitarian efforts, while preparing for an influx of relief workers."

Lord helped lead a successful evacuation and shelter effort at Keesler. The base had about 16,000 uniformed and civilian personnel. About 10,000 drove north before Katrina hit the base with sustained winds of 105 to 110 mph for 12 hours, Lord said. About 6,000 stayed in shelters on the base, including in its medical center.

Damage to the base will probably hit a half-billion dollars, Lord estimated. All the base's military personnel have been accounted for, but 24 civilian employees were still missing as of Friday.

Before the hurricane hit, Lord evacuated about 1,500 students on planes, probably the biggest airlift in Mississippi history. Forty international students were flown to their home countries.

In addition to knocking down homes and trees, Katrina created some harrowing moments at the base hospital. When the storm surge spilled into the hospital basement, technicians cut off emergency generators and put the building on battery power, which lasted about three hours.

When the power began failing, Air Force medics kept ventilators going by hand. Some patients were taken to the front of the hospital, where a gasoline generator -- chained to the building to keep it from blowing away -- was plugged into the ventilators. Doctors, working by flashlight, delivered one baby by Caesarean section.

The hurricane, Lord said, "was a disaster of epic proportions."

But Lord and base employees are too busy now to look back. The base's 5,500-foot runway is open, and helicopters are conducting search and rescue missions across the Gulf states.

The base is using one of its water tanks to provide safe drinking water to Biloxi. Helicopters ferry prepackaged meals and water to shelters and fire stations in remote areas of the state. Base chaplains and employees go out with tractor-trailers loaded with food, water, clothing and supplies to stock churches, shelters and community centers. Roving medical teams from the base, including doctors and nurses, serve people now living in shelters.

In the meantime, Lord said, "the rest of the Air Force is coming to our rescue."

Missing Employees

Federal agencies in the Gulf Coast states continue to look for missing employees. The Veterans Affairs Department, for example, as of Friday, had not accounted for about 1,500 of its 4,000 employees in the region. Employees can relay their whereabouts to their agencies by calling a toll-free number -- 800-307-8298 -- operated by the Office of Personnel Management.

Big Boost in Mileage Rate

The Internal Revenue Service, faced with rising gasoline prices, has increased the mileage reimbursement rate for taxpayers who use their cars for work for the last four months of 2005.

The rate will increase to 48.5 cents a mile for business trips driven between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, the IRS said. The rate for the first eight months of the year was 40.5 cents.

The mileage rate, for computing deductible costs of operating a vehicle for business purposes, is used as a reimbursement benchmark for the federal government and many businesses.

The IRS had been urged by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, to increase the rate. Kelley said the new reimbursement rate "simply isn't enough" and said the union would back an effort by Schumer and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to make it 60 cents a mile.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com