Md. National Guard unit arrives to help restore order in New Orleans

MPs' work delayed by missing Humvees

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - At the base of a flagpole near a battered firehouse, Capt. Marc Blum kneels in a bit of shade and tells his troops what he knows, which at this point on his company's first morning in New Orleans is a lot less than he'd like.

Blum, 35, an Owings Mills native, is commander of the 29th Military Police Company, the 60-soldier unit of the Maryland National Guard that deployed to the Naval Air Station New Orleans on Friday afternoon. The base will be the MPs' staging area for their security operations in the largely lawless city just eight miles to the northeast.

A cargo craft carrying three Humvees to take them into New Orleans was supposed to follow their flight from Middle River on a deafening C-130 plane. But for reasons Blum is not privy to, the cargo plane was ordered back to Maryland in mid-flight.

"If it arrives today, we'll go into the city," he says. "If not, we'll be here overnight. But be prepared for a five-day stay."

Blum has been company commander for two years, which means he hasn't been in the company's recent overseas deployments. But he projects such brisk authority that the platoon sergeants huddled around him seem ready to follow him straight into battle.

One gets straight to the point.

"What's the risk assessment, sir?" he asks.

"It's dangerous," says Blum. "We're in ... Tombstone."

The landscape around them looks like a battleground. To these part-time soldiers from Baltimore, Hagerstown and the Eastern Shore, the scattered debris of collapsed buildings is nothing shocking: most have honed their skills - armed security - in combat duty in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. All are able marksmen and trained in crowd control - essential for their mission, which is to calm the scene in downtown New Orleans, where armed looters and arsonists have been menacing refugees for days.

Blum commands a modest portion of a huge nationwide effort. Some 15,000 national guardsmen from the four affected states - Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida - are already on state active duty, providing logistical security and humanitarian support under the command of civilian authorities. Under the 1996 Emergency Management Assistance Compact, 15,000 guardsmen from other states will be in place by the end of the weekend.

Since most guardsmen must arrange to leave civilian jobs for such duty, the mobilization - by far the biggest ever marshaled under EMAC - has called for heroic managerial efforts. Blum seized his main priority in clear terms: "Be flexible," he says.

His control here is tight, his troops alert.

Sgt. John Cephas, 55, of Randallstown, a Vietnam veteran, lists ammunition needs. Then Sgt. Kimberly Mendez of Sudlersville, the first female first sergeant in Maryland National Guard history, makes sure every MP has a properly fitting protective vest. Blum checks off their needs.

But the captain can't direct everything, as evidenced by the missing Humvees. If Blum is subject to whims from above, others here have it worse. Last Sunday, Arthur Miller, 50, one of the firefighters holed up here, was trapped in the attic of his New Orleans home and only survived by bashing his way out with a hammer.

"I was in the Marines for eight years, been doing this for 20," he said. "I'll be damned if I'm going to end up drowning in my own house."

Later, Blum yields to Lt. Col. Gary Nunn, who has just spent four days in the Superdome and now lays out the company's rules. They are to use deadly force only when lives are at stake, and to address unruly or violent people in a calm voice.

"I was just in Iraq for six months," says Nunn, of the Louisiana National Guard. "I'd rather be there than here."

After he leaves, Blum takes a drag on his cigarette beneath a U.S. flag which flaps in the wind.

"Be prepared for the worst," he said. "And you'll be ready."

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