Engineers Make Way for Rescue, Reconstruction
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
GULFPORT, Miss., Sept. 23, 2005 In the aftermath of a hurricane, the capabilities that a combat engineer battalion brings are pure gold.
Pfc. Blaine J. Pugh of Picayne, Miss., chainsaws a toppled tree in the city of Pass Christian, Miss. A member of the Mississippi Army National Guard's 890th Engineer Battalion, Pugh has been on state active duty since Hurricane Katrina hit the coast Aug. 29. Photo by 2nd Lt. Murray B. Shugars, Mississippi National Guard
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
That's the experience for officials in the hours and days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
The Mississippi National Guard's 890th Engineer Battalion was invaluable in getting vehicles, supplies and people through the devastated area, officials said.
Even before the storm, the battalion sent 20-man teams with their equipment to hunker down with local emergency operations centers. In addition, the battalion headquarters was at the armory on the Trent Lott Combat Arms Training Center here. The teams were in place to coordinate requests from local centers to the battalion and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Katrina changed those plans. "There was no communications," said battalion executive officer Army Maj. Anthony Smith. The emergency operations center in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and its 20-man engineer cell had to evacuate due to the storm surge. And the battalion headquarters was surrounded by a lake.
Still, guardsmen went right to work. "The wind was still blowing when we had people and equipment out clearing roads," said Army Master Sgt. David Savage, acting battalion command sergeant major. "Soldiers make it all possible. The privates and junior (noncommissioned officers) saw what needed to be done and did it."
That included clearing roads so emergency vehicles could get into heavily damaged communities. It included removing hazards to health and safety, like tons of spoiled chicken in Biloxi, Miss., or houses terminally weakened by the storm. It including aiding first responders as they looked for those trapped by the storm.
The unit quickly fixed small bridges to allow vehicle access and helped open up 3,000 kilometers of Mississippi roads, officials said.
Once the work of opening the area was well along, soldiers of the unit volunteered to help search houses in affected Mississippi counties. "The feeling (among the soldiers) is, 'We're here. Put us to work,'" Savage said.
Many soldiers in the unit are from Gulfport and surrounding towns. Almost 60 battalion soldiers lost their homes and possessions in the storm. "Our troops maintain a great attitude even in the face of this," Smith said. "If you didn't laugh, you'd cry."