Miss. Guard left short-handed by mission in Iraq

Neighboring states are asked to help supply aid after hurricane

Katrina's Wake

August 31, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As more than 2,000 soldiers from the Mississippi Army National Guard fanned out through their hurricane-ravaged state yesterday, conducting search-and-rescue operations and handing out ice and generators, several thousand of their comrades were unavailable for disaster relief - because they're in Iraq.

In January, 3,500 soldiers from the Mississippi Guard left for a year-long overseas deployment and are hunting insurgents and providing humanitarian assistance on the outskirts of Baghdad.

But Guard officials insist there are enough part-time soldiers and equipment in Mississippi - as well as in surrounding states - to respond to devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

"We have enough people," said 2nd Lt. Andy Thaggard, a spokesman for the Mississippi Guard.

Generally, Thaggard said, the guard would call on infantry troops first to respond to a disaster. But a brigade of infantry soldiers is in Iraq. So instead, they have called on other soldiers to help carry ice and install generators.

Mississippi - the state hardest hit by Katrina, with up to 80 feared dead in one county alone - has requested National Guard help from neighboring states. The request includes soldiers with specialized skills, such as military police, and equipment, such as transport helicopters. Mississippi has about 7,014 Guard members available, representing about 60 percent of the state's total Guard force.

Other states suffering damage from Katrina - Louisiana, Alabama and Florida - have between 65 percent and 77 percent of their total Guard force within their respective states to help with rescue efforts and cleanup, officials said.

"There are sufficient Guardsmen available for the mission we have been asked to do," said Lt. Col. Mike Milord, a National Guard spokesman in Washington.

Thaggard of the Mississippi Guard said the state had experienced no delays in its response to the storm.

The U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, which oversees homeland defense, has set up a staging area at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama for relief supplies and federal emergency personnel. The Army Corps of Engineers is taking part in debris removal in the affected states and making emergency repairs on the levee system that protects New Orleans and was partially damaged by the storm.

Some 2,200 Guardsmen called to state duty in Mississippi, officials said, were dispatched to Gulfport, which was among the hardest hit areas. Additional soldiers may be called up by state officials, though no decisions have been made.

"We have not depleted all of our resources yet," said Lt. Meagan Jones, a spokeswoman with the Mississippi Guard. "We're still assessing the damage."

The Mississippi Guard soldiers in Iraq, part of the 155th Brigade Combat Team, went overseas with their Humvees and two-and-a-half ton trucks, but Thaggard said there is no indication that there is a shortage of those vehicles for hurricane-relief efforts.

The after-effects of Katrina have forced Mississippi officials to call on the Guard in Alabama and other nearby states for military police and engineers, as well as Black Hawk helicopters.

"This is the first time we've had a greater need than we could support internally," said 2nd Lt. Andy Thaggard, a spokesman for the Mississippi Guard. "We've got the support we need coming from other states."

Lt. Col. Robert Horton, a spokesman for the Alabama National Guard, said Alabama dispatched 800 troops yesterday to Mississippi, including 300 MPs and 500 engineers.

Such requests go through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, established by Congress in 1996 to pave the way for states to help each other in disasters ranging from hurricanes and floods to wildfires and toxic waste spills. Just last month, as Hurricane Dennis threatened Florida and the Gulf states, emergency personnel were dispatched from neighboring states under EMAC to offer assistance.

The National Guard is under the control of state governors, unless the soldiers and airmen are called to federal duty. Currently about 50 percent of the combat units in Iraq are comprised of Guard units.

Lt. Gen. H Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, has told the nation's governors that despite the heavy use of National Guard forces overseas, he would make sure enough soldiers remained at home to respond to natural disasters or other local needs. Blum, in a speech to the National Governors Association last year, said he wanted each state to have at least 50 percent of its Guard forces - and up to 75 percent - available for state missions.

On Monday, Blum told the American Forces Press Service, which is run by the Pentagon, that the Guard is able to simultaneously support the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and respond to state emergencies. "We are able to do what the nation needs us to do, and whenever we are needed," Blum said.

Louisiana has about 6,500 Guard members available, or roughly 65 percent of its total force, officials said. Some 3,800 Army National Guard and Air National Guard members are on state active duty, providing debris removal, security, food distribution and law enforcement support.

Alabama has more than 9,800 Guard members available, roughly 77 percent of the state's Guard force. More than 1,000 Army National Guard soldiers have responded, prepositioning generators and trucks and assisting in other support missions, officials said.

In Florida, about 8,200 Guard members are available, or about 74 percent of the state's force, according to officials, who said some 700 Florida Guardsmen are on state active duty distributing ice and water.

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