Iraq impacts felt in New Orleans

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.

  1. New Orleans police force redirected against looters
    New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered 1,500 police officers—virtually the entire city force—to leave their search-and-rescue missions and return to the streets to stop looting. Yet, by on-the-scene media accounts, the looters seem to be overwhelmingly desperate residents seeking food and fresh water. “It’s really difficult because my opinion of the looting is it started with people running out of food, and you can’t really argue with that too much,” Nagin said. “Then it escalated to this kind of mass chaos where people are taking electronic stuff and all that.”

    Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said she has asked the White House to send more federal personnel to help with evacuations and rescues, thereby freeing up National Guardsmen to stop looters. (AP, Aug. 31, via TruthOut)

  2. Pentagon won’t transfer Guardsmen from Iraq to Louisiana
    From the AP, Sept. 1:

    National Guard troops from Louisiana and other Gulf states will not be pulled out of Iraq ahead of schedule despite the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. command said Thursday.

    Some units are due to leave next month anyway following a year in Iraq, but the process could take weeks to complete.

    “They’re not going to be leaving early as a result of the hurricane,” Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told The Associated Press. He said the military had set up help lines for servicemen from the Southern states hardest-hit by the hurricane trying to contact family members.

    Still, pressure appeared to be building for the hastened withdrawal of some troops from Iraq, allowing them to return to their flood-ravaged home states.

    Brig. Gen. John P. Basilica, commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s 256th Enhanced Separate Brigade, asked his division commanders in Baghdad to hasten the Louisiana-based brigade’s departure, said Lt. Col. Jordan Jones, battalion commander of the New Orleans-based 141st Field Artillery Battalion, which is part of the brigade.

    “We were on schedule to leave anyway and he was trying to expedite that,” Jones said. The 256th could start leaving Iraq in about a week, if the departure was granted, and begin arriving in Louisiana a few days later.

    The request came as 10,000 National Guard troops from across the United States began pouring into Louisiana and Mississippi to shore up security, rescue and relief operations. The new units brought the number of troops dedicated to the effort to more than 18,000, in what may be the largest military response to a natural disaster.