Guard Troops Put Lives on Hold to Respond to Katrina
By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 4, 2005 Louisiana Army National Guard Staff Sgt. John Jackson had much on his mind as he checked the batteries for a dozen portable radios beside the Louisiana Superdome that was surrounded by a stinking cesspool three nights after Katrina.
The single father's five children were safe with his parents in New Boston, Texas. But his house in New Orleans was under water. Could he and his kids return to their home? How could he support them in a city where there were no longer any jobs? What would he do?
All of that seemed to take a back seat to the task at hand. Jackson is a National Guard soldier. He had been called to state active duty for what had evolved into the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. He was attached to the Louisiana Army Guard's engineer task force and was determined to do his duty.
"This is still a great country," said the man who had served in Iraq during the global war on terrorism and who, once again, had set his personal life aside to help others.
So it was with nearly 30,000 other National Guard troops from across America who left their families and their civilian jobs during the week after Hurricane Katrina became the biggest national calamity since terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with jetliners nearly four years earlier. "This is one of the worst natural disasters we have faced with national consequences. Therefore, there will be a national response," said President Bush after observing the devastation and recovery missions Sept. 2.
New Orleans, it was pointed out, is far more than a cultural center, convention city and party town. It's the port for 20 percent of American commerce. It was flooded out, shut down. And tens of thousands of people in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana and Mississippi needed help--fast. The afflicted area covered 90,000 square miles, the size of Great Britain, twice the area of Pennsylvania, CNN reported. The National Guard was ready to respond.
By Sept. 3, five days after the storm struck with 145 mph, Category 4 fury on Aug. 29 and after the levees that protected New Orleans had broken open, nearly 27,000 Army and Air Guard men and women were on state active duty in the stricken region. That number was expected to increase to nearly 40,000 during the coming days. Forty states, including the affected ones, were sending troops, equipment and supplies by cargo planes and convoys. The Guard was providing 74 percent of Joint Task Force Katrina, the uniformed military support to civilian authorities, the National Guard Bureau reported.
Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, promised two basic things to Bush, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and whoever else asked. "We'll give you whatever you need. We're here for as long as you need us," Blum vowed.
Guard members in helicopters and Humvees and high-water trucks provided security to communities without power, helped distribute food and water, and conducted search-and-rescue missions in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and in Florida where a relatively mild, Category 1 Katrina had struck the southern Miami region three days before devastating the Gulf Coast.
They did what they could for the 20,000 or so people who flocked to the Louisiana Superdome before and after the storm and who were finally evacuated from that filthy facility on Sept. 3. They took control of the Crescent City's convention center the day before that.
"One of the objectives that we had today was to move in and secure that convention center and make sure the good folks there got food and water," Bush reported. "The main priority is to restore and maintain law and order and assist in recovery and evacuation efforts." By Sept. 3, the Air National Guard had flown 785 sorties, more than it had done in three months. The Air Guard reported flying in 12,854 troops, evacuating more than 11,000 victims to safety and delivering 39,013 tons of supplies and equipment to the devastated area.
The Guard had trucked nearly 1,600 loads of water and more than 1,000 loads of ice to afflicted people in the four states. The Guard's CH-47 Chinook helicopters had flown in 65 sandbags, each weighing 20,000 pounds, to help block a breached levee in Louisiana.
It was the largest and most comprehensive National Guard response to a natural disaster since 32,000 California Guard members were called up for the earthquake that hit the San Francisco Bay region area in October 1989. Yes, it was bigger than 9-11, reported National Guard historian Michael Doubler, author of the 2001 book "I Am The Guard."
"With the commitment of 20,000 National Guard troops at this early stage, this operation is already four or five times larger than the sustained National Guard response that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9-11," Doubler said.
"I couldn't be more proud of the people in the National Guard and the absolutely awesome response they're showing to this natural disaster," said Blum Sept. 3 while appearing on "Larry King Live: How You Can Help," a three-hour CNN special.
"We had over 10,000 Guardsmen on duty, who left their families, left their jobs, prepared to help others before the hurricane hit," Blum explained. "The first citizen-soldiers responded to the shot heard 'round the world. Now we're responding to the storm heard round the world."
The Guard Bureau chief also pointed out that two brigades of Guard soldiers from those states, the 256th from Louisiana and the 155th from Mississippi, are serving in Iraq.
"Many of those people ... are quite concerned about what happened to their families. They are from [the area] where the storm hit and had some its greatest devastation."
Blum appealed to the viewers to call (888) 777-7731 if they have any information about the Guard families.
"This will ease the angst and the anxiety on the soldiers who are deployed overseas and allow them to focus on their jobs while we focus back here at home on making sure we take care of their families," Blum said.
The Guard members were focusing on many things as they worked 20-hour days in the heat and humidity and went without showers.
"We're still involved in search and rescue, but we're trying to evacuate the people from here," explained Command Sgt. Maj. Gregory Thompson, the engineer task force's top enlisted man on duty at the Superdome, where the plumbing had failed. "That will be the biggest relief - getting these people out of here and where they can get some real life support instead of what we can give them."
Many Guard troops serving at the dome had been flown from flooded out homes on and around Jackson Barracks, the Louisiana Guard's joint state headquarters in New Orleans. "Most of those guys came with what they had on their backs and in their bags," Thompson said. They also came to help in a hurry because that's what the Guard does. "This was a lightning-fast call for us," said Sgt. Kevin Mooney after members the 268th Military Police Company from Ripley, Tenn., rolled into Gulfport, Miss., on Sept. 2 to help police protect that ravaged city.
"We were told on Tuesday morning to be at the armory by noon with all of our gear," explained the Ripley police officer. "We packed our vehicles that afternoon and we rolled out the next morning."
Was he surprised that his outfit had been called up?
Not really, said Mooney. "This is what people get in for. It's just their nature to help."
(Army Master Sgt. Bob Haskell is assigned to the National Guard Bureau.)