For the third time in two months, the U.S. military is mobilizing to mop up after Mother Nature.
National Guard and active-duty troops by the thousands deployed first in late August after Hurricane Katrina whomped the Gulf Coast, then did the same farther west when Hurricane Rita pounded Texas and Louisiana.
Now, it’s Hurricane Wilma in Florida that has the Guard scrambling. And through it all, another 80,000 of America’s citizen-soldiers have remained on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Can they handle this heavy, and seemingly unrelenting, load? Yes, National Guard Bureau spokesman Bret Swezey said, though he added it might be nice if the pace slackened a bit.
“We’d appreciate Mother Nature taking a nap for a period of time,” Swezey said Monday.
In all, even though 13,000 Guard members are still manning recovery tasks that the first two storms spawned, more than 350,000 part-time troops remain available across the country to be tapped for duty in Florida, officials said.
Already, guardsmen and women from New York and South Carolina have traveled to Florida, bringing helicopters and communications equipment.
Not only can the Guard handle another storm, but it will do so with skills sharpened by the previous hurricanes, said Maj. Gen. Douglas Burnett, adjutant general of Florida.
“They are experienced professionals _ most proven veterans _ and our citizens can count on them being there when they are needed,” Burnett said.
For Wilma, the Guard was in position to help evacuate people, provide temporary shelter, and establish distribution points for water, ice and food. It also had assembled communications and transportation units, and put debris removal and engineering teams on watch.
At 7:45 a.m. Monday, as Wilma concentrated her might in southwest Florida, Guard convoys carrying troops and supplies headed south from the northern reaches of the state. Their first task was to check for damaged bridges and roads, which they will then guard and direct traffic around. They also are poised to launch search-and-rescue operations.
Here’s a sampling of what else the Guard — and the Department of Defense — has ready to help Florida get back on its feet:
- Even though about 2,000 Florida Guard members are on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 7,500 others are now in Florida and available for emergency operations. Thousands more troops from Georgia, Alabama and other nearby states are on stand by. The goal is to deliver food, water and ice within 24 hours to all areas hit hard by the storm.
- At least three dozen military helicopters are poised for evacuation and transportation, with more at the ready. An air-and-sea resupply effort is being coordinated to help people on islands cut off by the storm. The Coast Guard was already searching Monday for boaters or others swept out to sea.
- Three U.S. navy ships _ the USS Wasp, Trenton and Nashville _ are ready to leave Norfolk, Va., to bring humanitarian relief supplies to Florida’s east and west coasts.
- More than 60,000 military Meals Ready to Eat already were stockpiled by the Guard, along with 100,000 liters of water, in the worst-hit counties, and more already are on the way in trucks and other Federal Emergency Management Agency vehicles.
(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)