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Engineers Clear Way in Gulf

By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service

PASCAGOULA, Miss., Sept. 5, 2005 – Just west of Mobile, Ala., the Gulf of Mexico gently comes ashore, softly sighing as small waves break against the coastline. Nearly a week ago, these calm waters came inland, accompanied by winds that flattened homes, stacked moored boats into jagged piles and decimated communities here.

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An Alabama Army National Guard engineer drives heavy equipment as he clears streets in Pascagoula, Miss. Photo by Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA

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The region resembles a war zone. Rooftops that once crowned homes now block roads and houses have been reduced to disheveled piles of wood, concrete, pipes and wires. Strewn debris is inescapable to the eye.

Today, however, the piles are being pushed and the roofs are removed by squeaky, rumbling heavy equipment, and their noise is recognized as a harbinger of humanity.

Heavy equipment engineers from the Alabama Army National Guard's 877th Engineer Battalion are clearing debris from Pascagoula, Ocean Springs and Gautier, Miss. Residents share conversations and occasional smiles with the soldiers, welcoming their presence.

"We've sent recon teams into the area and it's really bad," said Alabama Army National Guard Maj. Mark Holland, the unit's executive officer. "We've never seen anything like this before." An engineer group currently is the sole engineer element for all three counties along Mississippi's coast, and a battalion headquarters is located in each affected county. Holland and roughly 300 engineers from Alabama provide engineering support for Jackson County.

When the engineers initially deployed, they were tasked with preserving life. Equipped with heavy trucks, they made their way through devastated rural areas providing ice, water and food. As the soldiers provided relief, they also reconnoitered routes and plotted blocked avenues that might hamper relief operations.

Holland's battalion has approximately 120 pieces of heavy equipment like plows and front loaders, plus more than 400 vehicles, including transporters.

He and his men have served in Iraq and fought fires in Florida, but Holland said this was the first time he's ever crossed a state line with heavy equipment.

"Some of the things you see out here you see in Iraq," Holland said. In particular, he referred to Ba'ath party targets the coalition attacked during the early stages of the war. Those buildings and many of the private residences along the Mississippi coast resemble each other.

"The devastation looks like an atom bomb went off," Holland said. In the past 15 years, he estimates he has responded to 10 natural disasters.

On the streets, a team of engineers huddled around a "five-yard loader," appropriately named because it can scoop up five yards of earth. After coordinating with city employees, they await guidance from the city on where to push two roofs blocking two streets just one block west from the Gulf of Mexico.

Across a leafless tree-lined street, another soldier slowly plows a path through the rubble. As he passes, the street is exposed and reveals a light coat of sand. Seashells are also scattered on the pavement.

Down the road, other soldiers assess damage in a slow drive from their Humvee.

"We've cleared storm damage, that's for sure," Alabama Army National Guard Sgt. Clyde Hornsby said.

"I feel sorry for them," he said of the victims. "They're going through a rough time."

Hornsby, an investigator for Henry County, Ala., said the engineers have responded to tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and fires in the past. The unit is currently under operational control of the Mississippi National Guard based on agreements between the states. Additionally, the engineers are tasked by the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center.

The engineers are now performing more construction-type missions, but they will still provide humanitarian relief goods throughout the area.

"They were the first people I saw (after the storm). They drove down my street," disaster survivor Elsa Kingsley said. "Now, I see them every day."

Holland said conditions in the region, although very austere initially, are improving daily for residents.

"This is what these guys like to do," he said of the National Guard engineers.

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Related Sites:
Military Support in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

Click photo for screen-resolution imageAn Alabama Army National Guard engineer survey team moves through a Mississippi neighborhood Sept. 3. Photo by Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA  
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