In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is devastated. Eighty percent of the city is submerged and the water is expected to keep rising for days due to levee breaks. The death toll of 60 could be just the beginning. Thousands are stranded in hospitals, prisons, nursing homes and the storm-damaged Superdome, where four deaths are already reported (two displaced hospital patients and one accident). The power is out throughout the metropolitan area, and the tap water is fouled, threatening a public health crisis. Rescuers in boats and helicopters are scrambling to pluck hundreds of survivors from trees and rooftops. Ruptured gas lines are burning in some areas, and buildings in others. Interstate 10 is destroyed, and only one road provides access to the city. (Newsday, LAT, AP, Aug. 31)
The Pentagon’s Northern Command plans to set up a task force to help federal disaster authorities bring relief by military aircraft and amphibious vehicles to the devastated communities. But with the Louisiana Guard’s 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Task Force deployed to Iraq, only some 65%, or about 6,500 Guardsmen, were still available for state duty. (KRT, Aug. 30)
This is also an issue for neighboring affected states. “Missing the personnel is the big thing in this particular event. We need our people,” said Lt. Andy Thaggard, a spokesman for the Mississippi National Guard, which has a brigade of more than 4,000 troops in central Iraq. Louisiana also has about 3,000 Guard troops in Baghdad. In Alabama, all the major Guard units activated for the disaster have already served in Iraq, and some still have contingents there. Capt. The Guard’s 1st Battalion 167th Infantry headed toward Mobile Aug. 30 with a force of 400 soldiers cobbled together from four units because the rest of the battalion is in Iraq. (WP, Aug. 31)
WNGO-TV in New Orelans noted Aug. 1 that when Louisiana National Guardsmen left for Iraq in October, they took much equipment with them, including dozens of high-water vehicles, humvees, refuelers and generators. The report stated, presciently, that “in the event of a major natural disaster that, could be a problem.”
“The National Guard needs that equipment back home to support the homeland security mission,” said Lt. Colonel Pete Schneider with the LA National Guard.
Members of the Houma-based 256th Infantry are to return in October, but it could be much longer before the rest of their equipment comes home, the report found. “You’ve got combatant commanders over there who need it they say they need it, they don’t want to lose what they have, and we certainly understand that it’s a matter of us educating that combatant commander, we need it back here as well,” Col. Schneider said.
The report warned that even if commanders in Iraq release the equipment, getting it home would take months. “It’s just the process of identifying which equipment we’re bringing home, bringing it down to Kuwait, loading it on ships or aircraft however we’re gonna get it back here and then either railing it in or trucking it in, so we’re talking a significant amount of time before that equipment is back home,” Schneider said. (WNGO, Aug. 1)
An Aug. 30 AP report in Army Times also noted that some 6,000 National Guard personnel in Louisiana and Mississippi who would be available to help deal with the aftermath of Katrina are in Iraq. “The juxtaposition of the mission to Iraq and the response to Katrina really demonstrates the new and changing character of the National Guard,” Daniel Goure, a military analyst at the private Lexington Institute, said Monday.
The Guard is increasingly an operational force, rather than a strategic reserve available to governors for disasters and other duties in their home states. Nationally, 78,000 of the 437,000 Guardsmen are serving overseas. At 1.2 million troops, the active-duty military is too small to carry the load of a large sustained deployment like Iraq.
In Louisiana, which took the brunt of Katrina, some 3,000 members of the 256th Combat Brigade are in Iraq; 3,500 Guardsmen were deployed for hurricane relief and another 3,000 are on standby. In neighboring Mississippi, the Guard has 853 of its 7,000 troops on hurricane duty. In addition to the 3,000 Mississipi National Guard troops in Iraq, another 300 are in Afghanistan. (AP, Aug. 30)
See our last post on the disaster in New Orleans.