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Banner - 2005 Year in Review
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A Coast Guard rescue swimmer prepares an elderly man and woman for transport to safety Sept. 7, 2005. U.S. Coast Guard photo
Military Tackles Relief Efforts in Gulf Coast Region

The Defense Department response to Hurricane Katrina was the largest, fastest deployment of military forces for a civil-support mission in U.S. history – more than twice the response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The massive and brutal Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in the last days of August. Damage was catastrophic. The vast majority of New Orleans lay under water. Months later, much of the city and surrounding region were still uninhabitable.

U.S. Northern Command was tracking the storm well before it came ashore and was working to coordinate with the Defense Department, the National Guard and state and local authorities. Within 24 hours, 7,500 National Guard troops from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi were on duty supporting civil authorities, distributing generators, providing medical care, and setting up shelters for displaced residents.

“As military folks, we go everywhere else to take care of people, and this was our opportunity to take care of our own.”

                Air Force Master Sgt. Terry Rawlins, in charge of a 50-member
                                detail to prepare for the retirees in Washington, D.C.

Service members, some just off the plane from a year or more in Iraq, immediately went to work on search-and-rescue operations, plucking people from roofs, overpasses and trees as contaminated water swirled below.

At every turn, service members said it made a difference to be helping fellow Americans rather than people in another country. “I hate this situation, but it makes you feel good to do something positive,” said Army Sgt. Will Jones, of the Alabama National Guard.

“We want to help people in our own backyard,” said Marine Sgt. Maj. Larry Jones, from Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C.

The National Guard, in particular, reacted with an overwhelming show of strength to rescue and then provide humanitarian assistance to Americans in need. National Guard members represented nearly every state.

“When you called out the Guard for Katrina, you called out all of America, in reality,” National Guard Chief Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum later told Congress.

The impact of the Defense Department's contribution to rescue and relief efforts was significant:

• At the height of operations, 22,000 active duty, 48,000 National Guard and 1,900 other reserve-component troops were involved in operations supporting hurricane relief. More than 2,000 Coast Guardsmen also assisted.

• More than 350 military helicopters and about 100 military airplanes were used in operations in the region.

• Military personnel, mostly National Guardsmen, evacuated more than 80,000 Gulf Coast residents and rescued another 15,000.

• Roughly 2,000 military medical personnel assisted with rescue and relief efforts.

• The Defense Department used nine military bases as logistics staging areas for collecting and distributing ice, food, water, temporary roofing materials and medical supplies.

• The Defense Department delivered 30 million meals and 10,000 truckloads of ice and water.

In addition, medical assets from several services set up field hospitals throughout the disaster zone to treat injuries and illnesses.

USNS Comfort, a hospital ship with trauma center-level capabilities, left Baltimore Sept. 2 after only two days of preparation and moored near Pascagoula, Miss. In their 10 days in Pascagoula, Comfort's combined

Navy, civilian and volunteer crew saw nearly 1,500 patients aboard ship and thousands more in the field. The ship then moved to New Orleans. During the ship's 10 days there, Comfort's medical staff worked alongside local civilian physicians to treat trauma patients aboard ship in a partnership between the Navy and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

Military members also worked to take care of their own, as well as the countless civilians in need. Officials at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., worked to feed and house 6,000 military members, civilians and their families who weathered the storm at the base.

Volunteers jumped into gear to spruce up temporary living quarters in Washington, D.C., and provide for the basic needs of military retirees displaced from their Gulfport, Miss., facility. “As military folks, we go everywhere else to take care of people, and this was our opportunity to take care of our own,” Air Force Master Sgt. Terry Rawlins, in charge of a 50-member detail to prepare for the retirees in Washington, D.C., said.

Military assets helped in less traditional ways, as well:

• Army Corps of Engineers specialists worked to repair breaches in levees surrounding Lake Pontchartrain and to pump water out of New Orleans.

• Specially equipped C-130 aircraft from the Air Force Reserve sprayed insecticide over areas affected by the hurricane to help prevent disease outbreaks.

• Mortuary affairs specialists from Fort Lee, Va., and Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, assisted with body recovery, storage and identification – tasks made all the more difficult because families had left the area and bodies were in stagnant water and high temperatures for weeks in some cases.

• Navy and Coast Guard experts worked to salvage the Port of New Orleans for ship traffic. Wrecked ships, piers and rubble choked the harbor after the hurricane. Military experts also surveyed offshore oil storage facilities.

• Special Air Force planes flew reconnaissance flights to capture aerial imagery of the devastation to help officials plan recovery and relief efforts.

• Air Force combat controllers worked to reopen Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

Less than a month after Katrina struck, National Guard authorities redoubled their efforts as Hurricane Rita took aim at the battered Gulf Coast. While 39,000 National Guardsmen and 13,000 more active-duty troops were still supporting relief efforts in the region, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a request for more Defense Department support to prepare for Hurricane Rita's landfall.

Officials made use of countless lessons learned from dealing with Katrina and pre-positioned supplies and forces. Texas had 2,000 National Guardsmen on state active duty in the days before Rita struck. Other Texas Guardsmen who had been helping in neighboring Louisiana headed home.

National Guard forces had the further challenge of relocating nearly 10,000 Katrina evacuees who had sought safety in Houston.

U.S. Northern Command continued its 24-hour joint operations center to monitor and coordinate DoD relief efforts. The Defense Department also deployed several mobile communications teams to help responders keep in touch despite damaged infrastructure.

As military members continued recovery efforts for an extended period after the two major storms, President Bush made several visits to the Gulf Coast.

“Out of this rubble is going to come some good,” Bush told troops in New Orleans during one October visit. “Out of this devastation is going to come new cities and new hope. And I hope you take great inspiration in being part of the renewal of this important part of the world.”

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