The scenes of the Hurricane Katrina disaster are beyond horrific. As they play across our television screens, they look more like the pictures of last December’s Southwest Asia tsunami than anything we’ve ever seen in America. No one can even collect the dead, because an increasingly desperate search for the living goes on into the night. As the Red Cross and FEMA organize disaster relief, and as Americans reach into their hearts and their pockets to donate to help fellow Americans, there is another part of America working hard.
There is one thing the tsunami and Katrina have in common: our armed services — including the National Guard — are doing what no other force in the world can do, bringing rescue and relief to those most in need. And somehow, the Big Dogs again came running without the help or supervision of the U.N., France, Germany or Belgium.
The National Guard already has boots on the ground in Louisiana helping rescue people and doing their part to help restore order. (It can do that because it’s operating under state mobilization orders, not federal ones.) States of emergency exist, but as National Guard Bureau chief Lt. Gen. Steven Blum told me Wednesday evening, there have been no declarations of martial law. Blum said he already had 11,000 men on the job, and was supplementing that force with another 11,000 within the next 24 to 48 hours. I asked him if he was short of people or resources, and his answer was what you’d expect, in time of war. “We have 320,000 more men if we need them.” Steve Blum has a deep bench to wave at if he needs more people and equipment. That’s a pretty unlikely event because Joint Task Force Katrina under the command of Army Lt. Gen. Russ Honore became operational on Wednesday.
Not that the Defense Department waited to set up JTF Katrina before it acted. As I write this, at about 7 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Defense Department aircraft have airlifted eight swift-water rescue teams (each comprised of 14 men, 6 large vehicles, and boats that can carry twenty disaster victims) that are working to save the survivors who are still stranded. The swift-water teams are moving fast, but are barely ahead of the Marines and sailors of the USS Bataan, the helicopter assault carrier that is already on station off Louisiana. Its five heavy-lift helos and landing craft are very busy, and the Bataan’s hospital will soon be as well. About seven heavy-lift helos and their crews are working for FEMA, performing search and rescue in the hardest-hit areas. While the National Guard and Bataan work into the night, the rest of the team are on the way by land, sea, and air.
Bataan’s sister ship, USS Iwo Jima, and its full amphibious assault team (which for this purpose means a lot more helos, landing craft, and maybe even the very fast LCAC — landing craft air cushion — boats) are preparing to leave for Louisiana tonight or tomorrow morning. They will be there within a couple of days. Meanwhile, Air Force Commando Solo aircraft (which, when not controlling ground forces or listening to bad guys) can provide relief forces with radio and television communications that aren’t available on the ground because there’s no electricity and no operating phone lines. A big logistics ship, carrying food and medical supplies, is also readying to sail and will be there in three or four days.
And that’s not all, either. Three military bases are beginning to operate as staging bases for FEMA operations, the hospital ship USS Hope is preparing to sail from Baltimore, and a battalion-sized force of army helicopters is coming from Ft. Hood, Texas.
As the rescue and relief force dashes forward, Americans are still struggling and dying in the flooded areas. There may be hundreds or thousands dead in New Orleans alone. It will be several more days at least before the remaining survivors can be found and rescued. It will be weeks or months before the dead are found and the waters recede. It will be years before the stricken areas recover. Our people, military and civilian, are doing the best that can be done, applying the tremendous resources we have at our fingertips. (No one who is found will starve. Nor will they eat like gourmands: there are about six million MRE meals, as in Meals, Ready to Eat, available above and beyond the war reserve.) We’ve suffered more from Katrina than from anything the terrorists have done or ever will. And we’ll recover, at least most of us will.
While all this is going on, Pentagon leaders are dealing with some uncommon problems. Most days, they work to help families communicate with their soldiers in the field, and notify the families of the wounded or killed as quickly and humanely as they can. Katrina has reversed the equation. Now it’s the soldiers who are worried about their families, homes, and jobs. The Defense Department is trying to get information for them about the safety of their families, but reports are few and far between. The guys in harm’s way have more than enough to worry about, and this has got to be weighing heavily on the minds of many. The DoD and Guard people are also beginning to plan to help soldiers after they return home. Especially those who now don’t have a home or a job to return to because the businesses they used to work for no longer exist. Some may just be told they can stay on active duty for a long time. A job is less than we owe them, but it’s at least a down payment on the debt.
You can’t help contrasting our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and coast guardsmen with the rest of us, and the world. The French are always there when they need us. Our military is always there when we need them. Bless ‘em all.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004).
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