National Guard Task Forces Provide Relief in Southeastern Texas
By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service
BEAUMONT, Texas, Sept. 26, 2005 The South Texas State Fairgrounds is now the hub of relief operations for several Texas National Guard task forces organized to provide Hurricane Rita victims with humanitarian relief. The storm pounded the Louisiana-Texas border Sept. 24.
Lt. Col Monrreal, of the Texas Army National Guard, briefs Maj. Gen. Charles G. Rodriguez about immediate-care strike teams. Photo by Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Task forces Bowie, Crockett, Support, Aviation, Rescue and Neighbor have a combined strength of 1,500 soldiers and airmen from the Texas National Guard. Texas Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Eddy Spurgin commands the forces. Many of these troops had been on hurricane-relief missions in neighboring Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina.
"When Rita showed up we moved to Texas so we could help our own people," Spurgin said.
"We're proud to be here," he said. "This is Texans helping Texas."
Many of these soldiers have been eating military rations for more than three weeks. They are still taking "field showers" using baby wipes, and almost all of them are sleeping outdoors or on the ground.
"I'm just glad to be a part of it, to be helping others," Texas Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Rodrigo Bazon said.
Bazon has been on duty since Aug. 31 and sleeps in his Humvee at night. On the side of his truck he has written in chalk: "Hurricane Katrina Chasers." Once Rita slammed into Texas, he crossed through Katrina and wrote "Rita" underneath.
Guard officials here said guardsmen were pulled out of Louisiana and, within two days, were outfitted with fresh equipment and redeployed to the fairgrounds to provide support to Hurricane Rita victims.
"We were able to miss the eye of the storm," Spurgin said. "Things could have been much worse," he said, but he was quick not to dismiss what many here are experiencing. "If you lost a house, Rita had a big effect on you."
In the first 24 hours after the task forces established their base camp, 10 immediate-care strike teams were dispatched into the most devastated areas of southeastern Texas. The 50-person teams bring water, ice and food to victims and establish distribution sites for relief supplies.
The teams also link up with community leadership, which might be isolated due to communications outages, and they assess the needs of the community through the leaders. The teams are self-sufficient, carrying three days of supplies for themselves.
Prior to the establishment of the task forces on the fairgrounds, a team was sent to Beaumont to reconnoiter routes and to assess conditions on the ground. As the team proceeded with their route recon, they were redirected and told to proceed to an elementary school in Fred, a small town in southeastern Texas. The recon team was told that storm victims might be in a flooded school.
"It was bad," Texas Army National Guard Sgt. Maj. Robert Strzelczyk said.
The elementary school had been flooded and badly damaged, and 87 elderly people with a small staff of caretakers were inside. The elderly patients and their nurses had been there for four days having evacuated to the school. They were dangerously short on supplies, only had electricity for a couple of patients, and conditions were less than sanitary.
Some of the patients had Alzheimer's, experience seizures, or required oxygen, Strzelczyk said. Four were in critical condition, kept alive by equipment powered by generators.
Once Strzelczyk and his team assessed the situation, they contacted the 68-person command-and-control element of the task forces located at Ellington Field, near Houston. The control element coordinated the ground and air evacuation of all the caretakers and their patients.
The most critically ill were aeromedically evacuated to hospitals, while the balance were moved to a nursing home via ground transportation. Within seven hours, the last patient was moved to safety.
"It was a heartwarming mission," Strzelczyk said. "We finally got them out last night."
As of Sept. 24, the Texas Army and Air National Guard had flown hundreds of missions and assisted with the rescue of 3,350 people in Beaumont, Houston and Galveston.
"These people do what they have to do," Strzelczyk said about his fellow guardsmen. "We were tickled to death to get them out."
Spurgin said Texas forces will be on duty as long as needed. "They feel very good about it," he said. "Our soldiers and airmen get a real sense of satisfaction helping others."
Hurricane Rita mobilizations in the Texas National Guard began Sept. 20 as the storm churned in the Gulf of Mexico. "We're trying to do whatever good we can, wherever we can," Texas Army National Guard Sgt. Eddie Basham said. "Whatever our command deems necessary. If we go into an area that needs help, we'll do 'tailgate medicine,'" he said.
Basham is with the 149th Air Ambulance Company, from San Antonio, part of a small medical contingent of doctors, physician assistants, nurses and medics. The unit's main mission is to provide medical care for task force soldiers, but they will adjust their mission to care for civilian casualties if needed.
Guard officials could not estimate how many tons of relief supplies had been shipped out, but military forces along the Texas-Louisiana state line were proactively providing aid, they said.
"Just a few weeks ago my family gave money to help Katrina victims; now we're the ones who need help," a resident said.