National Guard Helps Storm-Damaged Communities
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 26, 2011 More than 3,400 men and women of the National Guard are on the ground in seven states helping communities damaged by deadly tornadoes and floods, Army Maj. Gen. David L. Harris said today.
Harris, director of domestic operations and force development for the National Guard Bureau, spoke in a joint interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service.
The states include Alabama, Arkansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, Harris said.
Guardsmen are working with local and state officials, police and emergency responders in Joplin, Mo., he said, where a powerful tornado struck May 22, causing at least 125 deaths, more than 750 injuries and damage to homes and businesses.
The National Guard soldiers there are working in the life-saving phase, which Harris said lasts 72 to 96 hours before they transition to the recovery phase.
Soldiers are searching debris for survivors, working with local law enforcement to provide security, going house to house doing “wellness checks” of people who have no power, water or gas.
“We know that there are many still unaccounted for and our hearts go out to the community,” Harris said. “It just couldn’t be any harder than not knowing the status of a loved one.”
In Joplin, he added, the roof was torn off the National Guard Armory.
The armory is without power and gas, “but we’re still using it to help in the response,” Harris said, “providing temporary communications out of that position. So it’s still a part of the community and still working quite aggressively.”
It’s been a while “since we’ve had this type of and this much damage at once,” he added. “ … I’m sure this is catching a lot of people off guard.”
Earlier this year the guard supported Texas during a severe outbreak of wildfires, Harris said.
Three mobile air fire-fighting systems -- C-130s with devices inside to disperse fire retardant -- spent a month there to get the fires under control.
“I think at one point they said all but two counties in Texas had something on fire,” the general said.
The guard also helped in eight states recently flooded by an overflowing Mississippi River.
North Dakota still has soldiers watching levees and [working on] temporary dams and sandbagging operations there,” Harris said.
South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois all had fairly significant flood responses this year, he added.
In Missouri, the guard was involved in evacuating people from flood zones along the Mississippi and working the levees there, and helping with flooding in Tennessee and Kentucky.
In Louisiana, where the Mississippi begins flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, 1,100 soldiers are working with the Army Corps of Engineers to check levees, doing regular inspections and repairs, Harris said.
Those who manage the National Guard soldiers are staying vigilant through the spring, the general said.
“With record amounts of winter snowfall in the north and the west, everybody is watching the rivers and hoping that we don’t get rain on top of a good thaw because that would make the situation worse,” he said, noting that hurricane season quickly follows spring.
“We go from floods to wildfires to hurricanes to snow and ice, Harris said. “We get a short break and then we start again.”