Guard Ends New Orleans Mission, Focuses on Wildfires, Snow
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 2, 2009 As the Louisiana National Guard wrapped up its “precedent-setting” law enforcement mission in New Orleans yesterday, the Texas National Guard dispatched helicopters to combat wildfires torching Central Texas.
Meanwhile, as a major snowstorm works its way up the East Coast, National Guard units in the affected states are keeping a watchful eye and preparing to support local authorities if needed.
The last 100 Louisiana National Guard soldiers and airmen supporting “Joint Task Force Gator” completed operations yesterday to return to their communities across the state, Army Maj. Michael Kazmierzak, state public affairs officer, said. The Louisiana Guard has been conducting the mission in support of the New Orleans Police Department since June 2006.
Most of the Guardsmen involved had been part of a 15,000-troop force that provided disaster assistance and recovery support immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck the state in August 2005. That support concluded in January 2006 as civil authority was restored.
But six months later, as violence began to spike again, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco called the National Guard troops to duty to support the New Orleans Police Department. Within three days, 300 were operating in the city, and the number increased to 360 in November 2007, Kazmierzak said.
The task force began ramping down last summer in anticipation of a Dec. 31 mission deadline. However, the Louisiana government authorized an extension until March 1 at New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley’s request, Kazmierzak said.
Yesterday, 100 soldiers and airmen who had volunteered from a mix of units across the state officially wrapped up Joint Task Force Gator.
Kazmierzak called the support they provided “precedent setting” and said it sets a new standard for future National Guard support missions. The Guardsmen helped the police make more than 8,000 arrests.
“They performed spectacularly,” Kazmierzak said. “They demonstrated exactly what the National Guard is here for.”
As the Guardsmen supported Task Force Gator, they continued drilling with their separate units to maintain combat readiness. Many of the Guard volunteers had served previous combat deployments that Kazmierzak said contributed to the New Orleans security mission. “They brought back a wealth of experience doing police-type work,” he said. “They had tremendous capabilities.”
Meanwhile, in neighboring Texas, Gov. Rick Perry ordered four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters equipped to drop water and fire retardant to support firefighting efforts. Aircraft and crews from the Guard’s flight facilities in Austin and San Antonio logged in 6.4 flight hours as they dropped 35 to 40 bucketloads over the fires Feb. 28, Army Capt. Edward Greber from the Austin aviation office reported. “We were pretty busy on Saturday,” he said.
The crews remain on standby, awaiting additional orders, Greber said.
State officials reported that almost 3,700 wildfires have burned more than 118,000 acres across the state since Jan. 1. The most significant damage occurred last weekend in Bastrop County, where 25 homes were destroyed and 1,000 acres burned. So far, 57 homes have been lost to the fires.
Meanwhile, state National Guard headquarters in the mid-Atlantic and northeast are preparing to lend assistance to local jurisdictions if needed in the wake of a major late-winter snowstorm.
In Maryland, Army Brig. Gen. James Adkins, the state adjutant general, ordered the Maryland National Guard to analyze potential missions under a winter storm state emergency scenario, Army Staff Sgt. Kristofer Baumgartner reported.
“This is a precautionary measure -- an opportunity to ensure that we are prepared for any state emergency that the governor might direct us to respond to," Adkins said.
Under a state emergency, Gov. Martin O’Malley would activate the Maryland Guard, which would be available to help local jurisdictions through the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.
“It is a proven system, and one that has worked time and time again,” Adkins said.
For now, the Maryland Guard and other National Guard elements throughout the region remain in a watch-and-wait mode. “We’re always on standby,” Baumgartner said. “That’s the job of the National Guard. We’re always on alert, to make sure that when we’re directed to respond, we’re ready.”