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Military Prepares Response to Hurricane Rita

American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 22, 2005 – Military units are gearing up today to react to Hurricane Rita's expected landfall late Sept. 23 or early Sept. 24, even as its response to Hurricane Katrina continues.

At the Pentagon today, President Bush praised military relief efforts in Mississippi and Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"We had more than 50,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, including thousands of National Guardsmen and Reservists, on the ground helping the people there," the president said. "These good folks showed great capacity and compassion for our fellow citizens who hurt. ... They saved a lot of lives. And on behalf of a grateful nation, I thank them for their service."

Bush then turned his attention to the task ahead posed by Hurricane Rita. "Officials at every level of government are preparing for the worst," Bush said. "Our armed forces have pre-positioned troops. We have resources there to help the federal, state and local officials to respond swiftly and effectively."

At 2 p.m. EDT today, the Category 4 storm was reported about 435 miles southeast of Galveston, Texas, packing sustained winds of 150 mph and heading west-northwest at about 9 mph.

Officials at U.S. Northern Command headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., said NORTHCOM is prepared to meet requests for assistance that the Federal Emergency Management Agency may issue before and after the monster hurricane reaches land. As directed by the secretary of defense and in accordance with the National Response Plan, NORTHCOM officials said, the command is supporting Homeland Security Department and FEMA disaster preparation efforts. NORTHCOM is providing or coordinating the following support:

  • Defense Coordinating Officer and Defense Coordinating Element in Austin, Texas.
  • Five two-man communication teams, providing satellite phones and long-range satellite radio systems.
  • 26 helicopters for damage assessment, search and rescue, and medical evacuation: 18 heavy-lift, six medium-lift and two medical evacuation helicopters.
  • USS Iwo Jima, USS Shreveport, USS Tortuga, USS Grapple, USNS Patuxent and USNS Comfort are preparing to follow the storm to the Texas coast.
  • Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio is designated as the operational staging area for distribution of supplies.
  • The 5th Army under Lt. Gen. Robert Clark is expected to be designated as a joint task force.
  • NORTHCOM's Joint Operations Center continues 24-hour operations to monitor the storm's progress and to facilitate subsequent requests for assistance that may come from FEMA representatives.
To prepare for possible landfall on the Gulf of Mexico coastline, NORTHCOM planners are watching the storm closely to identify what resources may be needed and when they may be needed, officials said, and commitment of resources will dependent on the track the storm takes and the areas affected. NORTHCOM officials explained that Defense Department assets are employed in support of a primary federal agency, in this case FEMA, when local and state assets are overwhelmed or exhausted, and when DoD assistance is requested by that primary agency and subsequently approved by the secretary of defense. DoD assistance must be provided on a reimbursable basis and must not adversely affect military preparedness, officials added.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is mobilizing forces in anticipation of the storm hitting the Texas Gulf Coast.

As the hurricane nears Texas, military members and their families at bases along the Gulf Coast face evacuation to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. That could happen at any time, said Wayne Bryant, a Lackland spokesman.

"This is the reception point for military personnel and their families from installations along the Gulf Coast," Bryant said. "Lackland has set up an evacuee reception center to process those families who arrive. We'll provide housing, food and medical assistance, if required."

He said 3,000 to 3,500 people could arrive in the next few days. This is not a new mission at the base. It was the reception point for thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Airmen there received 89 flights in 55 hours carrying more than 9,700 people during the Labor Day holiday weekend. San Antonio provided refuge for displaced people from New Orleans.

The Air Force Reserve's 433rd Airlift Wing at Lackland is evacuating its fleet of C-5 Galaxy aircraft to Biggs Army Airfield in El Paso, Texas. The Air National Guard's 149th Fighter Wing, also at the base, is sending its F-16 Fighting Falcons elsewhere, but wing officials said the site was not yet determined.

About 10 miles southeast of Houston -- at Ellington Field -- the Guard's 147th Fighter Wing also is sending its F-16s to another location.

"Everyone around us is evacuating," said Master Sgt. Marcus Falleaf, a wing spokesman. "The traffic getting out of the city is terrible" as people evacuating Galveston transit the city.

"But we're still airlifting evacuees from Hurricane Katrina from here," he said. "We'll keep doing that until we have to leave," Falleaf said.

The sergeant said a 75-member team will remain on the base and "ride out the storm." Another team of about 30 people will leave their homes Sept. 25 and return to the base to help the other airmen "start any cleanup that might be needed," he said.

Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., is ready to continue supporting hurricane relief operations, said Maj. Mike Coleman, a command spokesman. AMC had a major role in the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, providing airlift, command and control and other assistance.

"We've told our people to get ready to go," Coleman said. FEMA has already asked Northern Command to make Homestead Air Reserve Base, near Miami, an operational staging base to pre-position food, water and ice. Ironically, Homestead was an active duty Air Force base until it was leveled by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

(Compiled from U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Air Force news releases and staff reports.)

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