National Guard to double relief forces

Maryland among states sending soldiers to areas devastated by hurricane

Katrina's Wake

September 01, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The National Guard is doubling to 20,000 the number of soldiers providing security and humanitarian relief to storm-ravaged Gulf states by rushing in more troops from across the country, including Maryland, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said units are being dispatched from as far away as Washington state, Utah and Michigan to deal with the largest domestic disaster in memory.

"If they need more, we'll send more," said Blum. "We're going to be in this for the long haul."

More than 10,000 Guard troops are already on the scene, principally from Louisiana and Mississippi, the states hardest hit by Katrina. Officials in those states, whose Guard forces had been stretched by deployments to Iraq, said earlier this week that they had not activated all their soldiers for duty.

But it quickly became apparent that neither state had sufficient troops or specialized capabilities - from engineering and communications to helicopter squadrons and truck companies - to cope with the human toll the hurricane left in its wake.

Blum said that while Guard troops are busy in Iraq, where they provide about 50 percent of the combat troops, the country has enough additional soldiers to deal with the storm. Out of a total force of about 320,000 National Guard troops nationwide, about 75,000 are deployed overseas, mostly in Iraq. The Air National Guard has about 100,000 personnel, with roughly 8,000 deployed on active duty.

Blum said that one Minnesota-based brigade training for Iraq duty at Camp Shelby, Miss., would continue gearing up for its overseas mission. "I have no intention of interrupting that flow," he said.

Camp Shelby is also the headquarters for Joint Task Force Katrina, headed by Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of the 1st Army at Fort Gillem, Ga., who will coordinate the military response with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

About one-third of the 10,000 additional National Guard troops being sent to the Gulf states will be used for law enforcement, assisting state and local police in securing facilities and dealing with the looting that has broken out in New Orleans and other cities.

The Guard will also provide water purification teams and engineering units to clear debris-strewn streets, along with as many as 100 five-ton trucks, which are high enough to move through floodwaters.

A Maryland Air Guard C-130 will airlift about 100 members of the 115th Military Police Battalion to Mississippi, officials said, as three other Maryland Guard cargo planes take personnel and supplies to Louisiana.

At the same time, the hospital ship USNS Comfort, which has 1,000 beds, is leaving Baltimore and is expected to reach the Gulf coast next week. Four more Navy ships are en route from Norfolk, Va., to provide aid ranging from rescue helicopters to medical supplies.

The Army and Air Force are also providing helicopters and cargo planes to move rescue workers and equipment. Three Air Force bases - Barksdale, La.; Meridian, Miss.; and Maxwell, Ala. - are being used to bring in supplies for FEMA.

Besides the National Guard forces, about 7,200 active-duty forces, mostly Navy personnel, are taking part in the effort, officials said.

Federal law - the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act - generally prohibits the military from taking part in law enforcement. But Pentagon officials said it does not apply to the Coast Guard in peacetime or to the National Guard when on state duty.

All Guard troops will operate under the laws of their states and augment local police, with the designation of "peace officer," officials said.

"We have not suspended any civil law in the four affected states," said Blum, adding there was no indication that troops would be federalized. The National Guard remains under the authority of state governors unless federalized by the president.

There were informal reports inside the Pentagon that Army and Air Force bases in the region might be used to create tent cities for the thousands of refugees created by the hurricane, but officials said no such decisions have been made.

For now, soldiers are likely to assist the Red Cross in setting up shelters elsewhere, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Terry Scherling, deputy director of anti-terrorism/homeland defense for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There was grumbling among some Pentagon officials about the slowness of FEMA officials in deciding where shelters would be set up for those displaced by the storm. As of late yesterday, no details had been announced about their locations.

One Pentagon official likened the relief effort to those planned for the aftermath of a major terrorist attack and noted that thousands of Gulf state residents would have to be housed for months, with challenges for providing food, shelter, communications, law enforcement - and maybe schools.

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