Military Forms Task Force to Aid in Hurricane Relief

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The Pentagon sets up a task force to respond to the crisis in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina sparked massive flooding. The Army's main North American headquarters in Colorado is working with state and federal agencies to get food, water and aid to hundreds of thousands of people.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The Pentagon has set up a task force to respond to the overwhelming needs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Army's main North American headquarters in Colorado is taking the lead in the relief effort, working with state and federal agencies to get food, water and aid to hundreds of thousands of people. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

The Pentagon's effort called Joint Task Force Katrina draws on all branches of the armed forces to help with relief efforts in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. Military officials say the task force is based on a model that's been used for special national security events, including a G8 Summit and the Republican and Democratic conventions. This is the first time it's been deployed for a natural disaster. Essentially the military responds to requests for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. The number one request so far has been for search-and-rescue helicopters. Paul McHale, the assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense, says the choppers are now on their way.

Mr. PAUL McHALE (Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense): We ultimately expect that we will make available a fleet of approximately 50 helicopters to support FEMA's operations. We have transported from California eight civilian swift-water rescue teams to assist those civilians who are still trapped by the collected water. We anticipate providing a 500-bed mobile hospital. That will be deployed in the New Orleans area.

NORTHAM: McHale says the Pentagon is also considering sending as many as 800 personnel to support the Red Cross. McHale said that the Defense Department has been preparing for Katrina for weeks. Still, a military spokesman admitted that the Pentagon had been caught off guard by the magnitude of the hurricane and the subsequent flooding. Now there's a rush to get equipment and manpower down to the region in time. Here's the Pentagon's McHale.

Mr. McHALE: We are moving to the area approximately eight ships that have various competencies in terms of medical support, humanitarian relief, transportation in a maritime environment.

NORTHAM: By morning as many as 20,000 National Guardsmen will have been deployed to help with relief and to maintain order. Most come from those states hit by Katrina. Some of these units are already stressed. Mississippi has a brigade of more than 4,000 National Guardsmen deployed in Iraq. Louisiana has sent about 3,000 of its Guardsmen to Baghdad. But at a press conference today, Brigadier General Terry Scherling, the top homeland defense official at the Pentagon's joint staff, dismissed any talk that the National Guard or the military is overstretched.

Brigadier General TERRY SCHERLING (Homeland Defense Official): The National Guard would be able to assist the states at the governors' request. I would also add that the active-duty military and the National Guard provide a deep bench for any of the missions that are requested by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.

NORTHAM: Still, members of the National Guard are being called in from states far from the Gulf Coast; so, too, with equipment, including heavy truck and vehicles that can move easily in high water. Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, says there's a shortage of that type of equipment on the Gulf Coast because it's needed so much more in Iraq.

Mr. LAWRENCE KORB (Center for American Progress): What's happening is the Guard units that deploy are actually leaving their equipment there and coming back, and they have to get reequipped. The Guard's been complaining about this for over a year.

NORTHAM: Those complaints may grow louder as the relief efforts continue. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: To recap the rescue and relief efforts under way, conditions in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast continue to worsen. President Bush, speaking in the Rose Garden this afternoon, said it will take the region years to recover. The New Orleans mayor has called for a total evacuation of the city, as officials attempted to repair damaged flood walls and levees. Plans are under way to move more than 20,000 refugees from the Superdome to Houston's Astrodome. Food and water supplies are scarce, and the entire region has been declared a public health emergency with concerns about cholera, typhoid and other infectious diseases. We'll have more on Hurricane Katrina's aftermath on this program and at npr.org.

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