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Defense Department Special Briefing on Pentagon's Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts

Presenters: Lieutenant General Joseph Inge, Deputy Commander, U.S. Northern Command
September 07, 2005 11:00 AM EDT

Defense Department Special Briefing on Pentagon's Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts

            BRYAN WHITMAN (Pentagon spokesman.)  Very good.  Lieutenant General Inge, this is Bryan Whitman from the briefing room.  Can you hear me? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  Bryan, I can hear you loud and clear.  How do you hear me? 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  We hear you very good, General.  And again, thank you for taking the time this morning to talk to the Pentagon press corps here again.  

 

            Most of you know Lieutenant General Joseph Inge by now, the deputy commander, United States Northern Command, the command that is leading the Department of Defense efforts in the hurricane relief.  He is going to give you a brief overview of where we've been since the last time that he talked to you, and then we'll get into some questions, but we will have to keep it relatively short as he is a busy man. 

 

            So, General, let me turn it over to you. 

 

            GEN. INGE:  Thanks, Bryan.  

 

            Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  It's my pleasure to update you on the Department of Defense's effort in the support of hurricane recovery.  As we speak, there are some 18,000 active military duty forces alongside 45,000 National Guardsmen making a difference by saving lives and relieving suffering along the catastrophic Gulf coast and New Orleans.  These forces continue to work in partnership with FEMA and our other federal agencies as we stabilize the situation.   

 

            At the same time, I'd like to point out that Northern Command continues to focus on our mission of homeland defense and assuring our ability to support our potential national needs.  

 

            Actions in the last 24 hours:  3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division will close into AO [area of operations] today.  Currently they have approximately 1,900 people on the ground of a 2,500-man commitment.  2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division has 1,850 people on the ground.  They are closed; will link up with the 82nd and work under their control. 

 

            Search and rescue continues in Louisiana and Mississippi. 

 

            The special purpose Marine force, the 11th MEU and the 24th MEU have completed deployment and they are engaged in operations as we speak.  The Iwo Jima is pier side; it has become the headquarters for Lieutenant General Honore.  The Tortuga is also pier side in New Orleans, assisting in the housing of workers for the city -- police and such.  Harbor salvage continues by the Navy, and survey of offshore critical oil storage and facilities is in progress. 

 

            I'd also like to mention the work of our Coast Guard partners. They have been doing tremendous work around the clock to rescue people, save lives.   

 

            In the last 24 hours we have delivered 7 million liters of water, 5 million pounds of ice, and 2 million meals ready to eat. 

 

            Today's efforts:  We will fly 71 hours of reconnaissance surveilling from the air the damage to get an attempt to determine what the priority for mitigation will be.  We will continue search and rescue.  We will support the evacuation of survivors.  We will transport and distribute relief supplies:  ice, food, water, and of course medical supplies.  We are supporting fire-fighting efforts and have moved some capabilities into the AOR.  You saw it on TV yesterday, I'm sure.  We will work -- continue to work food control and the sourcing of food supplies.  And we're working to make sure proper Mortuary Affairs support is in place.  

 

            There's repositioning of troops to make sure that we have the right people in the right place to get into the watered areas and do a ground, house-by-house search to see if there are any other people who need to be rescued.   

 

            I would add that our allies begin to arrive.  The Canadians have divers in the water off Pascagoula, Mississippi, helping with harbor reconstruction.  And Mexico will have a vessel arrive today that will join the Bataan in the Gulf and begin search and rescue.  It's a vessel that has helicopter platforms that can assist in the recovery.  

 

            In the coming 24 to 72 hours, we will continue to explore isolated areas and conduct rescue.  We will provide for immediate needs of residents awaiting evacuation.  We will expand the house-to- house searches.  We will expand medical facilities as needed for sick and injured.  And we will deploy additional ships and aviation assets, should they become needed.  The Comfort will arrive within the next 72-hour period.  And we will continue to respond to FEMA requests for assistance. 

 

            In summary, we continue to save lives and reduce human suffering. We're fighting fires, restoring levees, recovering establishing communications, and transporting vital supplies.  You will continue to see progress. 

 

            And let me close by saying we are prepared to respond to any threat to our homeland.   

 

            That's what I have for you now.  I stand by for your questions. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Charlie, let's go ahead and get started. 

 

            Q     General, Charlie Aldinger with Reuters.  You say that you all will continue to support the evacuation in New Orleans.  How about forced evacuation, people who are taken from their homes against their will, as ordered by the mayor of New Orleans; will the National Guard or regular troops take part in forcing these people to do which, I guess would -- you know, go into the law enforcement area. 

 

            GEN. INGE:  I've been watching the news this morning and I understand that this is an issue.  The situation as I know it now is that civil authorities in Louisiana and New Orleans are discussing this issue.  It's not clear to us what the exact state of the mission is.  We would believe -- we are told there are some 900 policemen in New Orleans.  We would certainly see forcing evacuation as a first priority for them to work.  If the authorities in the state of Louisiana chose to use their National Guard in a state status, that would certainly be permissible and their call.   

 

            When this turns into a law enforcement issue, which we perceive forced evacuation is, regular troops would not be used.   

 

            Does that answer your question? 

 

            Q     Yes.  Just one other thing.  Perhaps you could make this clear.  The National Guard troops from other states sent to New Orleans, are they are under orders from the Louisiana governor or do they remain -- in other words, could they be used for police duty? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  I would refer that question to General Blum and to Louisiana.  But it's my understanding under the Guard's emergency support program, they are under the authority of the adjutant general of the state of Louisiana. 

 

            Q     Thank you.   

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Let's go over here to Jamie. 

 

            Q     Jamie McIntyre from CNN.  General, I want to ask you about a story that's in The New York Times today about a couple of Navy pilots who apparently were dressed down by their commander for -- they were supposed to be delivering supplies, and they decided to go rescue some people in the early stages of this operation. 

 

            Now, I understand you might not have any knowledge of this specific incident, but I want to ask you about it because it underscores a more general criticism of the initial military response, and that is that it was a too much by the book, too much waiting for orders, and not enough initiative, improvisation, adaptation to the reality of what was on the scene.  And that's why this story has gained some resonance.  

 

            Can you respond to the idea that the mission was not sufficiently adaptive; there wasn't enough creativity employed and enough judgment by people right at the frontlines deferring to their judgment in order to get aid to people faster. 

 

            GEN. INGE:  Well, Jamie, first of all, I'd not heard of this issue.  But I would not agree with the line of reasoning that's been put forward.  Our priorities were save lives, sustain lives, and then recover and reconstitute.  By, I guess, last Wednesday afternoon, there was some hundred to a hundred and fifty helicopters in the air.  They were delivering food. They were doing search-and-rescue.  We in the military, I hope, understand our responsibility to save lives if in fact that position is presented to us. 

 

            And I know this is quite an issue.  On Sunday, the 28th, we deployed Defense coordinating officers into Mississippi and Louisiana. On Monday the 29th, at first light, the hurricane hit.  On Tuesday morning, when everybody woke up in Louisiana, the sun was shining, and we were all talking about what a good day it was and how we'd passed the hazard.  Tuesday afternoon or sometime during the day Tuesday, General Honore and his task force arrived at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to support the relief effort.  We think -- and we know we were leaning forward.  We know that we moved vessels.  We removed the Bataan up behind the storm, and very quickly helicopters were in the air over the disaster area. 

 

            Q     Just to follow up, General, do you believe that the initial response was sufficiently adaptive to the reality on the ground?  Were you able to, in a reasonable amount of time, figure out what was really going on and change the plan to accommodate what the reality was on the ground? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  I think it was pretty adaptive, Jamie, but I won't go further than that, because there will be great reliving of this instance in the months ahead, and time will tell. 

 

            I think, for the moment, we need to focus hard on getting the job done and relieving the suffering of the people in Louisiana and Mississippi. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Let's go over here to Bob. 

 

            Q     General, this is Bob Burns from AP.  In your opening remarks, you mentioned the Mortuary Affairs part of the operation. Could you explain exactly the extent to which the military's involved in that and who in the military and where they're doing that work? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  There are no Mortuary Affairs teams from the military in the AOR.  They are all civilian source at this time.  We know how many are there, and we believe, for the moment, it's adequate.     

 

            We have a Mortuary Affairs company at Fort Lee, Virginia, in Petersburg, that's on 12-hour alert to respond to the area, should the need arise. 

 

            Q     General, Jim Miklaszewski with NBC.  You said a moment ago that on Tuesday morning, you woke to sunshine.  Everybody thought that the worst was over.  And indeed, apparently there were some headlines in the area that said we dodged a bullet. 

 

            But the evidence indicates that the three levee breaks in New Orleans had already taken place.  How is it that so many people could have missed the significance of those levee breaks and the disaster, potential disaster, that those breaks represent? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  Jim, I really can't speak to that, because none of our forces were in New Orleans that day.  I think you would have to refer that to the people who maintain those levees. 

 

            Q     (Off mike) -- ask you:  Did anybody in the local or state government confer or discuss the levee breaks and the potential threat that those breaks posed with the National Guard or anybody at NORTHCOM prior to that Tuesday? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  I'm not aware of any discussion with Northern Command.  I can't speak to who else they might have spoken to.  I have no further information on that.   

 

            Q     Thank you, General. 

 

            GEN. INGE:  I'm not aware of a discussion between Northern Command -- .

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Okay.  Let's go right here. 

 

            Q     General, Bret Baier with Fox News Channel.  Right now you have about 60,000 troops on the ground.  Yesterday Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said there may be a point at which there may be too many forces on the ground.  Are you approaching that point?  And is there analysis of maybe overflooding the area with forces? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  I don't think we're overflooded at this point, but as in any operation, there will come a time when we'll have to transition and begin to move forces out.  And there may be an intermediate time where we will bring in different, unique forces and take some of the ones that are there out.  But certainly it's appropriate to start considering what's your transition plan and at what point you reach that.  We're not far enough along at this point to talk about that. 

 

            Q     What unique forces?  You mentioned unique forces. 

 

            GEN. INGE:  There may become a time when the appropriate forces on the ground are only logistics or the appropriate forces on the ground are only ones needing to assist in installing housing.  You just never know until the situation develops.  Every day, we review what the need is, what the requirement on the ground is, what's the requirement for the next 72 hours so that we can be prepared to respond on time and on target. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Al? 

 

            Q     General, Al Pessin with  Voice of America.  Considering that as you said, you forward deployed relief forces in advance of the storm, would the response have been quicker and more effective if the military had not had to wait for the request for aid from the civilian authorities?  And has this experience indicated to you a need for some sort of a change or reorganization of procedures of how to deal with such situations?   

 

            GEN. INGE:  I think that's a question to be answered in Washington.  We were prepared to respond according to the laws of our land, and that's what we did. 

 

            Q     Would it have been faster if you hadn't had to wait for the civilian requests, from an operational point of view? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  If you look at the time it took us to get there, I think we had a pretty daggone fast response. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Go ahead, Tom. 

 

            GEN. INGE:  General, Tom Bowman with the Baltimore Sun.  I know some active duty military bases are being used for evacuees, Maxwell Air Force Base, and I know Eglin is constructing some housing for evacuees.  And I'm just wondering, do you plan on having more active duty military bases used for housing the evacuees, particularly since states like Texas are saying they're strained by the number of evacuees that are coming in? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  I know that we -- I can't give you a good answer to your question.  I know that we've looked at the military bases as to make them available.  And I know that, for example, at Fort Polk, Louisiana, soldiers deploying from the Louisiana Guard from Iraq will be given housing should they need it until they can recover.  But if FEMA comes in and needs us to house people in appropriate places, we will certainly take appropriate action. 

 

            Q     Well, what has FEMA said to date?  Do they say we don't need additional active-duty military bases?  What have they told you? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  I don't have current data on you (sic).  I'll have to get back to you if you need an answer.  Let us get back to you on that. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Let's go -- (off mike). 

 

            Q     General, it's Mark Mazzetti with the Los Angeles Times calling -- calling? -- (laughter) -- questioning.  Two questions, really, actually.   First is, you detailed some prepositioning of forces and units in advance of the storm; can you just detail a little bit about what you guys did in advance?  And secondly, are you confident that from NORTHCOM'S perspective, you did all you could do in advance of the storm before you got the actual call from the civilian agencies? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  I believe we took appropriate action, to answer your second question first.  We moved coordination effort into the storm. When we saw that the storm was becoming larger, we began to alert search-and-rescue type vehicles, and we alerted the Bataan, which was in the Gulf, to follow the storm in.  That's the macro of the actions we took.  And I would remind you again that General Honore was in the disaster area on Tuesday. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  We've got time for a couple more.  Let's go over here and then over to Matt. 

 

            Q     General, Jeb Shogul (ph) with Stars & Stripes.  We talked to a Louisiana state official last week who said officials had ruled out airdropping supplies because they were afraid of causing riots in New Orleans.  Was this more of a decision not to do it, or were forces incapable of launching such a massive air drop? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  We talked about air dropping supplies, not C-130s with parachutes, but supplies out of helicopters and if you'll recall, images of people doing just that.  I'm not aware of any discussion about worrying about riots if we dropped supplies, certainly not here at Northern Command. 

 

            Q     Why not use C-130s if you have so many at Arkansas? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  The number of helicopters we had there, probably be better to do it that way -- probably more precise. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Let's go over here to Matt Kelley. 

 

            Q     General, Matt Kelley from USA Today.  Can you say how -- if and how many units that aren't doing Katrina relief that may have otherwise done so because those units are training for or planned for future deployment to Iraq, and if there are any units that may have been deployed to Iraq, but will not because they're doing Katrina relief? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  There are no units that were all scheduled to be deployed to Iraq that will not be because of the hurricane, and we diverted no units or changed any affect of any unit that I'm aware of because of Iraq.  I can say -- (audio break) -- sure, Iraq did not impact this disaster when it came to forces, and I would go back to my comment.  And we stand ready to react to any other threat against our homeland as we speak. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Well, we've got time for about one more.  Let's go over here. 

 

            Q     Sir, Jim Garamone with American Forces Press Service.  The storm hit a lot of bases too.  Are there any unaccounted for soldiers, sailors, or airmen from the storm? 

 

            GEN. INGE:  Not that I'm aware of right now, but I'll have to get back to you with exact numbers.  That's being worked more through the services than it is up here at Northern Command. 

 

            Q     Thank you.   

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  General, I just want to thank you again for taking the time.  I know we're trying to get into a little bit of a regular pattern, so that we can have some awareness of what the Northern Command is doing and the efforts in this relief operation.  And so we hope that we'll have you back very soon and appreciate your time today.  Thank you. 

 

            GEN. INGE:  Bryan, I appreciate it very much.  You all take care. Thanks for your work.

 

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