- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

In recent days, tens of thousands of National Guardsmen from virtually every state and thousands of active-duty military personnel from the Army, Marines and Navy have simultaneously poured into the Gulf Coast region, demonstrating beyond any doubt that the nation has finally mustered the manpower, the means and the resources to address the natural disaster that decimated New Orleans and much of Mississippi early last week.

More than 40,000 members of the National Guard are now in the region, joined by nearly 20,000 active-duty personnel. Today, 350 helicopters and more than 75 fixed-wing aircraft from the National Guard and the Department of Defense are operating in the area. However, while operations appear to have become much smoother with the ultimate arrival of adequate personnel and equipment, that does not change the fact that the timely availability of resources was grossly inadequate early last week. Nor can the fiascoes be explained by problems in the different chains of command for the National Guard and the active-duty personnel.

After Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco declined a White House request Friday night to cede control over National Guard forces in her state, a parallel command structure has remained in effect, and it appears to be operating smoothly. Major Gen. Bennett Landreneau, who heads the Louisiana National Guard, is in charge of all Guard forces in the state. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore of the Northern Command, whose son serves in Iraq with the Louisiana National Guard, oversees active-duty forces. Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, the chief of the Defense Department’s National Guard Bureau, said last week that the fact that the National Guard was under the command and control of the governors “does not present a seam. It does not present an issue or a problem.”

The Defense Department points out that its assets are provided only upon the request of the states and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is a unit of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As Katrina threatened the Gulf Coast, however, the U.S. Army Northern Command did not receive a request from Homeland Security or the governors to assist in the evacuation.

Noting that “nearly 3,600 National Guard [were mobilized] to assist in the hurricane effort,” a public-affairs officer of the Louisiana National Guard predicted that the state’s shelters, including the Superdome, would have enough water and food for the evacuees. Meanwhile, the First Army reported that it had assembled helicopter support to aid in the quick distribution of food and water in the aftermath of the storm. Before Katrina struck, Gen. Honore said he had been “in contact with each of the state’s adjutant generals and assured them that the First Army [was] ready to help.”

Once the disaster occurred on Monday, however, neither the Army nor the National Guard was in a position to make good on its intentions. At a Pentagon briefing this week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was left to explain that relief could not be provided Tuesday and Wednesday because “there was substantial movement [of helicopters and aircraft] away from the hurricane” to prevent their being damaged.

Asked why no helicopters were available to drop food at the Superdome, Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “the first priority was to save lives.” But people were dying at the Superdome and at the convention center. Why couldn’t the military perform both tasks?

Meanwhile, the Pentagon insists that the assignment of the Louisiana National Guard’s best equipment to Iraq had no effect on disaster operations. Arguing against that proposition, Lawrence Korb, who handled personnel and Guard issues at the Pentagon under President Reagan but who has been an anti-Iraq War advocate from the beginning, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “They had their crack troops there in Iraq. They have the best equipment, the best training.”

Citing Pentagon statistics, the Boston Globe reports that the National Guard Bureau estimates that the Guard’s nationwide equipment-availability rate is about half its normal level because “equipment has been beat up, blown up or simply left behind,” according to John Goheen of the National Guard Association of the United States. Only a careful after-action inventory can resolve this disputed point.

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