Anti-Terror Teams Prove Worth, Versatility in Katrina Recovery
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
GULFPORT, Miss., Sep. 15, 2005 Units formed to counter the effects of a terrorist incident have proven their worth during natural disasters.
Civil support teams working in response to Hurricane Katrina's widespread destruction have given commanders here needed capabilities.
Katrina wiped out the infrastructure throughout the Gulf Coast. The storm surge, wind, rain and subsequent flooding killed the communications net. "The land lines were blown down, and cell phones didn't work," said Sgt. 1st Class Peter Eargle, the communications specialist with the Mississippi National Guard's 47th Civil Support Team. "We were able to come in and establish communications between the forward element and state headquarters (in Jackson)."
Those first hours are crucial, said emergency management specialists from across the region. "I can't tell you how frustrating it was to not be able to communicate," said a Louisiana emergency management official who spoke on background. "We could not speak with the state emergency management center in Baton Rouge. We knew what we needed, but had no way of getting the word back."
The civil support teams bring "redundant communications" assets to the field. Soon after arriving here, the 47th had radio connections, secure communications, satellite feeds and Internet connectivity up and running. The team arrived at the Trent Lott Combat Readiness Training Center - the forward headquarters for the Mississippi Guard's rescue and recovery effort - on the day after Katrina hit. The team provided commanders and local officials in Gulfport to communicate with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
With its specialists in air, water and ground sampling, the team worked with state and federal public health officials to test the water and air for biological hazards. The capability - designed to test for chemical, biological and nuclear hazards during a terrorist attack - quickly adapted itself to the changed circumstances.
Since then, the team has been running constantly, the 47th's commander, Army Lt. Col. Gordon Ditto, said. "We're helping coordinate searches, we're still providing Internet capability to the headquarters and we're providing a necessary command and control (capability) for officials here," he said.
The Indiana National Guard's 53rd Civil Support Team also joined the effort against Katrina. The team fell right in with its Mississippi counterpart and expanded the reach of officials up and down the Gulf Coast. Members of both teams work to build relationships with first responders and state officials. "Once they learn what we can do, they don't want to let us out of their sight," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Robert Smith, a 47th team leader.
Team members also use their capabilities during their time off. Soldiers and airmen - the teams are joint - have volunteered to join teams searching houses for Katrina victims. "We are schooled in hazardous materials," Smith said. "Many times we advise people on chemicals we find as we conduct the searches."
The teams will remain in place as long as they are needed. "As the local infrastructure recovers, the need for us will fade," said Army Maj. Paul Navas, the 53rd Civil Support Team's commander. "We'll be here until the mission is complete."