August 31, 2005

Warships, hospital ship join in storm relief

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military on Wednesday added
Navy ships, including two helicopter assault vessels and the
hospital ship Comfort, and elite search troops to a relief
effort in the wake of killer Hurricane Katrina.

The moves came as the Army Corps of Engineers planned to
help the National Guard drop 3,000-pound (1360 kg) sandbags
into an opening of a protective levee that has caused the
flooding of most of that tourist mecca two days after Katrina
ripped ashore.

The Pentagon said more than 8,200 part-time National Guard
troops were already mobilized by governors in Louisiana,
Mississippi, Alabama and Florida for duties from police work to
providing water and electric generators.

Other states were planning to send additional troops and
equipment, according to Brad Swezey, a spokesman for the
National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon.

The military's Northern Command said the big Navy hospital
ship Comfort was preparing to depart Baltimore and the
helicopter carrier USS Bataan and another warship were already
conducting rescue missions from off the Louisiana and
Mississippi coasts.

The USS Iwo Jima, another helicopter assault ship, was also
preparing to sail from Norfolk, Virginia, with three other
vessels and arrive in five days, the Navy said.

The Bataan and the Iowa Jima carry heavy MH-53 and HH-60
"medivac" (medical evacuation) and supply helicopters.

The Northern Command, which is coordinating help to the
Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, said 10 Air Force
and Army search and rescue helicopters were already in the area
or close and that the first of eight military "swift water"
rescue boats and elite military crews were flown in from
California overnight.

But the Northern Command, based in Colorado, made clear
that unlike the National Guard and Coast Guard, any active duty
troops sent to the area could not take part in police duties.

"The military may not act in a law enforcement capacity
within the United States," the command said. "Typical defense
support of civil authorities in disasters includes logistics,
communications and medical care."

In New Orleans, the Corps of Engineers said it could begin
on Wednesday to help drop the giant sandbags into an opening of
the 17th Street Canal floodwall from twin-rotor helicopters to
try to fill a big break caused by Katrina.

New Orleans is a bowl-like city mostly below sea level and
protected by levees or embankments. The levees gave way on
Monday night in places, including a 200-foot (60 meter) breach
on the 17th Street levee that allowed waters from Lake
Ponchitrain to pour into the city center.

Guard officials said that after the breaks in the floodwall
were repaired, the corps planned to break an opening in a lower
portion of another levee around New Orleans so trapped water
could begin flowing out of the city.