Friday, September 02, 2005

Military Hurricane Relief Focuses on Saving Lives, Reducing Suffering

By Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON (9/1/2005) — Military support for the hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast intensified today as more troops and assets arrived in the region, where responders are focusing on saving lives and relieving suffering among thousands of the hurricane’s victims, the commander of Joint Task Force Katrina told Pentagon reporters today.

Speaking to reporters by satellite phone from Biloxi-Gulfport (Miss.) Regional Airport, Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore outlined details of a massive DoD effort to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state governors, and other federal, state and civil authorities in the hurricane-stricken region.

More than 13,000 Army and Air National Guard members were on state active duty this morning in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, a number expected to surge to more than 20,000 by the day’s end, National Guard Bureau officials reported.

Honore said the National Guard currently has 4,700 National Guardsmen on the ground in Louisiana and 2,700 in Mississippi. In Louisiana, those numbers will increase to 7,400 later today and 8,600 by Sept. 2, he said. In Mississippi, 6,000 guardsmen will be on duty by nightfall and 9,500 by Sept. 2.

Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita told reporters today the total National Guard contribution to the effort is likely to spike closer to 30,000 in the days ahead.

Many of those troops will be dedicated to the law-enforcement mission, helping local and state law-enforcement officials in maintaining security, he said. Unlike federal troops, the guardsmen operate under their state governors’ authority and are not subject to laws that prevent active-duty troops from performing law enforcement in the United States, U.S. Northern Command officials explained.

In addition, more than 7,000 active-duty troops, mostly Navy, were also supporting hurricane-relief operations in the region, a number defense officials acknowledged will increase as required.

USS Harry S. Truman, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, was preparing to leave Norfolk, Va., today to serve as a command center and afloat staging base, Lt. Trey Brown, a Navy spokesman, confirmed. Truman is expected to carry additional helicopters from Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla., to support search-and-rescue operations.

USS Whidbey Island, a dock landing ship also based in Norfolk, was also slated to depart for the Gulf today. Once there, it will help move heavy equipment ashore in areas not accessible by land, Brown explained.

In addition, National Guard troops and elements in every state except Hawaii and Guam were either supporting or poised to support the effort if needed, Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told Pentagon reporters Aug. 31.

The military support is concentrating on three priorities President Bush laid out during an Aug. 31 statement to the nation: first, save lives; second, sustain lives with food, water, shelter and medical supplies; and finally, execute a comprehensive recovery effort.

Toward that end, Honore said, the primary emphasis is on conducting search-and-rescue missions and providing other life-saving support, such as getting people to the medical care they need. Equally critical, he said, is getting food and drinkable water to those left homeless by Katrina.

The task force is also helping the Louisiana National Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency evacuate New Orleans residents taking refuge at the city’s Superdome and move them to the Houston Astrodome.

U.S. Transportation Command is transporting some 2,500 patients from New Orleans International Airport to federal coordinating centers as part of the Defense Department’s extensive support for the hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast, U.S. Northern Command officials reported.

Military support for search-and-rescue efforts continues throughout the region. Today, four MH-53 Sea Stallion and two HH-60 Seahawk helicopters from USS Bataan were flying medical-evacuation and search-and-rescue missions in Louisiana.

Honore told Pentagon reporters today he’s ordered the Bataan to move to Biloxi, Miss., to support search-and-rescue efforts in Mississippi, where he said the disaster had spread over a far larger area than in Louisiana, leaving many areas isolated.

Three helicopters from the Army’s 3rd Corps at Fort Hood, Texas, are in Baton Rouge, La., and two more are in Mississippi supporting search-and-rescue missions and damage assessments. Another five helicopters from the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., and the 347th Rescue Wing at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., are also in Mississippi continuing searches and rescues, officials said.

U.S. Transportation Command also flew eight swift-water rescue teams from California to Lafayette, La. These civilian volunteer teams are trained to rescue stranded people from flooded areas.

High Speed Vessel Swift was also in the waters off Louisiana in anticipation of filling requests for help by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, officials said.

Meanwhile, more help is on the way. The Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group is sailing from Norfolk and expected to be operating off the Louisiana coast beginning Sept. 4, officials said. The strike group includes USS Iwo Jima, USS Shreveport, USS Tortuga and USNS Arctic.

The hospital ship USNS Comfort is slated to leave its Baltimore port Sept. 2, to reach the hurricane region by Sept. 8 to provide critical medical support, Air Force Brig. Gen. Terry Scherling, deputy director of antiterrorism and homeland defense for the Joint Staff, told reporters Aug. 31.

Four HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters from the 55th Rescue Squadron are slated to leave Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., Sept. 2 to provide additional search-and-rescue support in Mississippi, Air Force officials reported.

The Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., started generating missions for Air Mobility Command aircrews to fly supporting relief efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi, Air Force officials said.

In addition, plans are being made to deploy USS Grapple to the region to help with maritime and underwater survey and salvage operations, NORTHCOM officials reported.

Joint Task Force Katrina continued setting up its operation today at Camp Shelby, Miss., to provide command and control of DoD assets supporting recovery and relief efforts along the Gulf Coast.

Federal operational staging areas set up at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.; Naval Air Station Meridian, Miss.; Barksdale Air Force Base, La.; Alexandria, La.; and Fort Polk, La., are helping expedite the movement of relief supplies and emergency personnel into the affected areas, officials said.

Joint Forces Command is also providing DoD-leased property at the former England Air Force Base, La., as an intermediate staging base to support hurricane response in Louisiana. The airfield will serve as a staging point for National Guard troops arriving from other states to join the hurricane relief effort.

Liaisons are also based in Clanton, Ala., Baton Rouge; and Jackson, Miss., to coordinate operations among U.S. Northern Command, other DoD elements and FEMA.

Honore said DoD’s contribution to the overall effort is expected to get stronger every day as more forces and their equipment pour into the region.

“A lot of people need help, and our job is to try and bring that help to them, working in support of the state agencies and the lead federal agency, FEMA,” he said.

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