125 Vermont guardsmen headed for Gulf Coast
COLCHESTER — Vermont will send about 125 members of its National Guard to the Gulf of Mexico over the next two days to help rescue efforts in states battered by Hurricane Katrina.
About 25 Air Guard members will leave first and be followed by 100 soldiers of the Army National Guard. They were to serve on security detail in Louisiana and Mississippi, where looting and violence are hampering rescue and evacuation efforts.
Gov. James Douglas and Adjutant Gen. Martha Rainville of the Vermont Guard made the announcement Thursday at Camp Johnson in Colchester.
Col. Jared Florance, a medical doctor and the state surgeon of the Vermont National Guard, is already in the area, according to officials. Florance, a public health specialist, left for the region Wednesday.
Rainville said the departure of the soldiers, many of whom returned from duty in the Mideast in March, and the cur-rent deployment of roughly 1,200 Vermonters to Iraq will not weaken the state's ability to respond to emergencies closer to home.
About 62 percent of the Guard will remain in Vermont, Rainville said.
Nor have deployments of large numbers of Guardsmen to Iraq and Afghanistan hampered rescue efforts after the hurricane, she added.
The impact of the storm, which left 80 percent of New Orleans under water, was so great "it doesn't matter at this point that they had 40 percent of their Guardsmen in Iraq," Rainville said of the southern states. Relief from around the country would have been needed anyway, she said.
About 20,000 members of the National Guard from many different states should be in the shattered region by today, Rainville said.
She called the aftermath of the hurricane "a situation we have never seen in the United States." She added that it demonstrates the dual roles of the Guard in domestic emergencies and foreign wars.
Douglas said he is also convinced enough Guardsmen remain to handle any problems in Vermont, especially now that the danger of flooding from recent rains has abated.
The Vermont Guardsmen who will be deployed are chosen because they have had physicals, vaccines and their life insurance and wills are known to be up to date. Although many of the soldiers are artillery troops by training, their experience in security details in Iraq also prepared them for their new assignment, members of the Guard said.
The Vermonters will be armed with 9 mm pistols and will likely take shotguns as well, soldiers said. In addition they are taking specialized equipment like waders and enough food and water to sustain themselves for at least 10 days.
The need for rescue workers to bring enough food and water to support themselves makes the effort unique and difficult, said Public Safety Commissioner Kerry Sleeper.
"These folks are working in conditions that are very, very primitive," he said. "They have to be totally self-sustaining."
In addition to sending the National Guard troops, Vermont is preparing other emergency personnel in case they are needed, Douglas said. Only volunteers with particular skills, such as medical expertise, are needed now.
State and nonprofit agencies are also collecting certain donated goods, and are asking for commercial trucks and drivers who can volunteer to drive the supplies to the area of Gulfport, Miss.
"Our job as Vermonters, indeed as Americans, is to rally around those who are in need" Douglas said.
Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, a pilot in the Vermont Air Guard, is also working with an airlift mission in the south, the governor said.
Douglas said that by concentrating Vermont's efforts on Gulfport, as requested by Mississippi authorities, the Green Mountain State will have a greater impact.
The difficulty in assessing the damage from the storm, and the fact that it took until Thursday morning to get in touch with local authorities in the affected areas, made response slower, Douglas said.
Sleeper spoke with Col. Marvin Curtis, director of the Mississippi Highway Patrol, who asked Vermont for help.
Sleeper called the Vermont aid "a very narrow and timely supplement to the federal effort."
One of the difficulties is that the infrastructure of the area has been so damaged it cannot support relief efforts, he said.
"The challenges right now in terms of sending people down to the area is that it is extremely unstable right now," he said. "Staging areas are just being identified and developed."
In addition, those relief efforts are going to have to go on for a long time, so government and aid workers must prepare for long-term sustained work.
"This is going to be many, many months," Sleeper said.
Donations of money are being organized by the American Red Cross, Douglas said.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont contributed $10,000 to a Red Cross fund for the victims of the storm as well.
Contributions from the public have been "significant and heartening," said Rob Levine, executive director of the organization's Northern Vermont Chapter.
Three volunteers have taken the group's emergency response vehicle to ferry supplies into the impacted area, and more volunteers are expected to go soon, he said.
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