Task Force Alabama Provides Command, Control for Relief Operations
By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service
OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss., Sep. 6, 2005 A private airport here has been converted into a forward operating base from which more than 1,500 soldiers and airmen from the Alabama National Guard are supporting disaster-relief operations for Jackson, George and Greene counties in Mississippi as part of Task Force Alabama.
Air Force Master Sgts. David Chase, right, and Paul Perry work on a satellite dish. All communications for Task Force Alabama are satellite-based, officials said. Photo by Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"We are providing humanitarian assistance, zone recons, and we're providing a presence," the task force's chief of staff, Army National Guard Lt. Col. Nicky Medley, said.
Like many storm victims, task force soldiers are living in austere conditions. Most soldiers are sleeping outdoors, a few in vehicles. Some soldiers also have hurricane-damaged homes, but they are here.
The task force is the command-and-control element for Alabama forces in Mississippi. Maintenance, communications, medical, signal and engineer units comprise the task force. An infantry unit is scheduled to join the force soon.
"We control every Alabama unit from this location, with the exception of two," Medley said. Mississippi officials control the other two.
Ocean Springs, just east of Biloxi, was among several coastal cities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The Alabama Guard descended on the private airport within two days. Today the camp bustles with support personnel.
There are hundreds of vehicles here. Tents and antennas jut skyward from the camp, an unfamiliar tactical sight in this suburban area. Alabama's state surgeon has secured a storefront in a shopping center in nearby Gautier to provide health services and to allow others to donate medical aid.
"The county's making signs, and we're trying to tend to special needs there," Medley said.
The Guard's presence here has had an impact. Prior to the Guard's arrival, police officials said serious security incidents were occurring an average of seven to eight per day, including an incident of shots fired at a relief distribution point. Less than a week later, the incidents have dropped to less than seven per week.
Task Force Alabama controls military forces for the emergency operations center. Soldiers from the task force have escorted fuel tankers due to prevent hijackings but have now turned that job over to law enforcement officials. While fuel is in short supply, it is making its way through under escort.
Guardsmen are keeping order in lines at gas stations. The few gas stations that do have fuel have long lines of motorists waiting quietly and orderly for their fuel, as guardsmen chat with motorists to help them pass the time.
In neighborhood streets, massive construction dump trucks ferry tons of relief goods into hard-to-reach areas where survivors depend on the food, water and ice the guardsmen bring them.
Alabama guardsmen are also supplying spiritual nurturing and relief. Sept. 5, a busy Alabama National Guard chaplain consoled and assisted two civilians trying to locate the body of a deceased relative.
While Guard members here look after Mississippians, many still have jobs, damaged homes, and family members at home who want to know when their soldiers will return home and that they are safe. The 280th Combat Communications Squadron, of the Alabama Air National Guard, has established a satellite-based Internet cafe for task force soldiers.
"It's a great morale thing," Air National Guard Master Sgt. David Chase said. Chase, a data and network technician, said his unit's main mission here is to provide tactical communication capabilities.
"What we're doing here is setting up communications for the entire Joint Task Force Alabama," Chase said. "We give the general and his staff a link to the outside world."
Relief and recovery operations are given a voice through the 280th. Without the link the unit provides, the task force could not have interagency communication and coordinate activities with civilian emergency authorities.
The 280th brings a full communications suite to the disaster-recovery efforts, providing forces with defense switched network phones, a local computer network with e-mail and Internet, commercial telephones, and a secure computer network.
"We've done a lot of smaller disasters," Chase said, adding that he and members of this unit served in at least three relief operations in the past year. Since Sept. 11, 2001, several troops from the 280th have deployed overseas.
"We've got a big job ahead of us," Chase said as members of his team worked around him.
Medley agreed. "We've identified communities that couldn't get out, and we've brought help," Medley said.
The task force is expected to be in place for at least two to three weeks.