The Army National Guard, already stressed by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, is doubling the number of troops it plans to send to the Gulf Coast as it shoulders the massive relief burden for Hurricane Katrina, Defense officials said Wednesday.
The number of National Guard troops is expected to double to roughly 21,000 by today, for a total military force of about 28,000, including active-duty forces from the Army, Navy and Air Force.
The initial focus will be on rescue operations and bringing in food and medicine before military units start working on clearing roads, supplying safe water and other tasks. Guard units are expected to play a key role in restoring order in areas afflicted by looting.
The troops going to the Gulf Coast are accompanied by hundreds of military cargo trucks, 72 helicopters, cargo planes, seven Navy vessels and a hospital ship, along with enough shipboard and mobile hospital beds to treat more than 4,000 people.
Defense officials said the Pentagon had enough troops to supply security, food and medicine to victims of Hurricane Katrina, but some retired military commanders and analysts warned that the added duties could further strain a Guard that many argue is near the breaking point.
“The reserve component is nearly half of the deployment in Iraq, and at the same time they are taking on this critical mission,” said retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey. “It’s an enormous strain on this dedicated military force.”
Approximately 11,000 National Guard troops from Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi had reported for hurricane duty by Tuesday, Lt. Gen. H. Stephen Blum, commander of the Defense Department’s National Guard Bureau, told reporters at the Pentagon.
Another 10,000 will be evenly divided between Louisiana and Mississippi over the next two days. One-third of the troops will be military police charged with combating looting and providing security, Blum said, with the rest carrying out rescue efforts, transporting supplies and repairing what damage they can in the short term.
The Guard troops, who remain under the ultimate control of state governors, are being joined by 7,200 active-duty troops from the Army Corps of Engineers and other units already on the ground, and more active-duty forces are likely, Pentagon officials said.
By the end of the week, Blum said, the Guard contingent will include troops from every state but Hawaii.
“This will truly be America responding to America’s own emergency,” Blum said. Asked if there was any shortage of troops or equipment, he added, “There’s nothing that I’m in want of.”
At the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Pentagon created a task force to manage its overall hurricane effort, to be led by Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, a Louisiana native.
The response could be the largest by the National Guard in history, Blum said. “It’s clearly the biggest natural disaster in my lifetime,” Blum said.
Pentagon officials emphasized that the troops they were sending would be self-sufficient for food, water and other supplies, and were not expected to add to the burden now straining local services.
“The field medical units, combat engineers, transportation units and MPs are the critical units for a homeland security mission like this,” McCaffrey said.
Pentagon officials scrambled Tuesday to put together one of the largest relief efforts in U.S. history as it became evident that the surging floodwaters would leave a major U.S. city uninhabitable for some time.
“As we see it, the only thing worse could have been a nuclear explosion or a biological weapon,” said one Pentagon official working on the Defense Department’s relief effort.
Some defense experts pointed out that the National Guard units in Iraq and Afghanistan would be available for the massive relief effort if they were home.
“This is what happens when you take Guardsmen and put them on the conveyor belt into Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
“Surprise, surprise: Engineers and logistics people that are essential to support missions in Iraq are important in disaster relief,” he said.
Nearly 8,000 Guardsmen from Mississippi and Louisiana are serving in Iraq, many in combat support units. Two of the units, Louisiana’s 256th Infantry Brigade and Mississippi’s 155th Armored Brigade, contain engineering and support battalions that would specialize in tasks regularly used for disaster relief.
Nonetheless, Pentagon officials pointed out that 65% of Louisiana’s total Guard force and 60% of Mississippi’s Guard members are available to assist in hurricane relief, along with 77% of Alabama’s total Guard force.
The Guard troops are central to law enforcement aspects of the relief effort.
Although active-duty U.S. troops are being used in the relief effort, constitutional limits prevent them from performing law enforcement duties.
Pentagon officials stressed that only National Guard troops, which are under the control of governors when operating within the United States, may be given law enforcement duties.
Only a presidential decree would allow active-duty federal military troops to be brought into a law enforcement mission, and officials said they did not envision that would be necessary in this case.
“The president does have certain statutory authority to use the active-duty military in order to restore civil order,” said Paul McHale, assistant secretary of Defense for domestic security. “Although we don’t expect that to happen in this case, we do have units that are on alert, as we always have such units on alert, prepared to deploy in order to use active-duty military forces for the lawful restoration of civil order.”