Hurricane katrina & Rita Relief
In August, 2005, nature dealt the Gulf Coast a devastating blow that would test our nation and potentially redefine the role of the National Guard. When hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck, Guard personnel from all 54 states and territories responded in the largest domestic National Guard mobilization in U.S. history. West Virginia’s response to Hurricane Katrina began more than a week before the storm made landfall. The Guard’s Emergency Operations Center in Charleston was manned around the clock, monitoring the storm’s progress and identifying assets and resources. Leaders began developing plans should the storm drive north and threaten West Virginia. Next, the staff developed a response plan to support the gulf region. National Guard Bureau was well aware of West Virginia’s experience in flood operations. “When the magnitude of the devastation became evident, we received a call from the joint staff at NGB requesting our assistance,” recalls Col. Johnnie L. Young, deputy commander, land component, West Virginia National Guard.
West Virginia’s first response was to launch C-130’s from the 130th and 167th Airlift Wings to assist in the evacuation. Maj. Kevin Meagher of the 130th Airlift Wing piloted the first C-130 from West Virginia into New Orleans’ Airport. “We didn’t know what to expect,” tells Meagher. “There was a lot of disjointed information both in the air and on the ground.” This flight was also significant because it delivered battery powered lights allowing the airport to conduct twenty-four hour operations. Even a C-17 grounded by nightfall was now able to continue its lifesaving mission. In addition to delivering critical lighting equipment, the plane also brought in an Air medical crew from Pope Air Force Base to establish an initial triage at the airport. The aircraft was reconfigured and loaded with medical evacuees who were transported to San Antonio for treatment. Additional West Virginia aircraft would soon follow suit bringing in more forces and supplies and evacuating the victims. Brig. Gen. John E. Barnette, West Virginia’s assistant adjutant general for Army and land component commander, was returning home from Korea when he received a call from Adjutant General Allen E. Tackett asking him to lead a West Virginia task force into Louisiana. The first West Virginia ground forces arrived at Belle Chasse Naval Air Station on Sept 3. Minutes from downtown New Orleans, the small reserve airfield soon became a critical hub in the relief effort and the staging area for Task Force West Virginia.
Barnette was on the flight deck as the C-130 approached New Orleans. He brought additional staff members forward for their first look at the flooding. “At first there was no point of reference. Everything was still under water,” said Barnette. “It probably took us 48 hours on the ground to even begin to comprehend the level of devastation. It was much deeper than the media had represented.” The first aircraft arrived carrying security and staff personnel with enough food, water and equipment to sustain themselves for 15 days. A ground convoy arrived in Belle Chasse later that day with 62 vehicles and 120 personnel. Staff Sgt. Richard A. Rose, a mechanic with A Co., 1092d Engineer Battalion, was in that convoy. “With the armor, the weapons...it was similar to rolling into Baghdad,” recounts Rose. Another A Co. member, Spc. Shane Dillon, recalls their arrival in New Orleans. “There was so much confusion. We had to find a place to start. That was the hardest part,” said Dillon. “You think you’re prepared coming down here, then you see the devastation. You feel lost.” Dillon, like others did manage to find his role. Dillon’s commander, Capt. Brent A. Schultz, noted, “We had to tell Dillon to slow down. He would finish his shift but remain in the shelter, sometimes twenty hours a day.” Dillon and his peers were taken in by the children. “They just saw us as G.I. Joes and wanted to climb on us,” remembers Dillon. “You cannot ‘not’ get involved with these kids.” Capt. Schultz’s team brought more to the shelter than flood supplies. They brought along friendship and delivered compassion. According to Schultz, “ We got to know them. For the first time [since the flood], they felt like someone actually cared about them.”
Developing the mission
Lt. Col. Donald G. Lockard, commander, 151st MP Battalion, led the first West Virginia security forces into Louisiana. According to Lockard, “The challenge was that the mission was developing, the response was developing – everything was developing. It was purple...truly a joint operation with Army, Marine, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard working together,” said Lockard. “You had a large influx of people. Everyone trying to help - we needed to synchronize their efforts.” Working closely with the J2 staff, Barnette’s first goal was a comprehensive assessment. “There was scattered knowledge, so our staff developed the first intel estimate, which was used by everyone,” noted Barnette.
West Virginia Delivers
With much of New Orleans still sub- merged, Task Force West Virginia now had a defined mission. Initially, the task force had expected to support a single parish, similar to a county in other states. Realizing the scope of the operation, members modified their plan to accommodate 11 parishes. Now anticipating a Guard strength approaching 40,000, the task force focused on establishing a Reception Staging and Onward Integration (RSOI) operation at Belle Chasse. “It was the vision of our leadership,” according to one staff officer. “General Barnette stayed three steps ahead of everyone else in the operation. He forced us to think. He challenged us.” Barnette worked closely with his Louisiana counterpart, Brig. Gen. Hunt Downer. But Barnette was clear from the beginning, “We’re not here to take over the operation. It’s Louisiana’s show. Eighty percent of their forces have been personally impacted by Katrina. We’re here to assist until they can get back on their feet.” As the RSOI mission grew, so did the logistical requirements to support the troops. At one point, Belle Chasse was home to nearly 25,000 service members. Responsibility for logistics fell upon Col. Larry A. Brown, West Virginia’s J4. His first task was to establish the Logistics Support Area (LSA) for Belle Chasse. The role of the LSA soon grew, to sup- port all 11 affected parishes. Brown and his fledgling staff proved equal to the task. “I took a lot of junior personnel down there. We’d drop them in and they’d take off and run with the mission with little or no supervision,” said Brown. “It really opened my eyes to witness the caliber of junior leaders and NCO’s we have in the organization.” Brown went on to point out how well the staff integrated with other state’s personnel and representatives from National Guard Bureau. Overwhelmed, yet under control, West Virginia’s role would only increase.
Ready for Rita
Less than a month after Katrina, Hurricane Rita was heading north towards the Louisiana coast. With Katrina labeled “a one hundred year storm,” no one could have imagined another hurricane so soon. “It was like a poorly written CPX (command post exercise),” remarked Brig. Gen. Barnette, referring to the constant challenges presented throughout the operation. At times, it seemed as if the most unimaginable scenarios became routine. Before Rita reached Louisiana, Brown and his staff built a plan that called for a Direct Support Brigade (DSB) and three LSA’s to provide logistical support for the entire state. “In West Virginia, we’ve done floods where we supported 2,500 troops,” stated Brown. “All I did was take that process and expand it ten times.” In the midst of the nation’s most catastrophic event, his plan worked. And not only did this plan work, Brown and his staff went on to accept the FEMA logistics role as well.
The rest of the story
As significant as their role in logistics, West Virginia troops were dispatched throughout the region to support numerous diverse missions. In Mississippi, the J6 ISISCS [communications] van provided communications throughout regions where telephone and power systems had failed. The small team of Air and Army Guard personnel established a work model so effective that their systems will be fielded to every state. In Gulfport, members of the 167th Air Wing provided aerial port operations for aircraft bringing personnel and supplies to the Mississippi coast. The depth of West Virginia involvement in the relief effort extended far beyond the scope of this article. The barely mentioned Emergency Operations center in Charleston was critical in every aspect of the operation. Personnel, many rotating to and from Louisiana, would return home to supplement EOC staff. At Camp Dawson, a shelter was established to house more than 300 hurricane victims. National Guard, the Office of Emergency Services, Department of Health and Human Resources, State Police and count- less other state organizations worked together to bring the faces of Katrina right here to the mountain state. In all, nearly 1,200 volunteers from the mountain state served in the relief effort. By all accounts, West Virginia’s National Guard proved that even a relatively small force of experienced, dedicated troops with strong leadership can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, even under the most austere conditions. More than three months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck, more than two dozen West Virginia service members remain in Louisiana filling various roles, and with them remains the Mountaineer spirit and our legacy of “Neighbors Helping Neighbors.”