August 31, 2005

Warships, dozens of helicopters join storm relief

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

Officials in New Orleans were pressing the military to help
evacuate the flooded city and the Superdome stadium, where
thousands of refugees were gathered. Pentagon spokesman Bryan
Whitman said that "there's an option there to use military
resources" in the evacuation but no decision had been made.

Whitman said 48 Army helicopters were prepared to leave
Fort Hood, Texas, to take part in the relief effort. They would
join more than 30 Army, Navy and Marine Corps helicopters
already working the devastated coasts of Louisiana and

No immediate order was given to commit active-duty federal
troops to the area where Katrina slammed ashore on Monday, but
Whitman said some 8,500 part-time National Guard soldiers and
airmen had been mobilized for duties from law enforcement to
providing water and power generators.

Those Guard members included 1,007 sent by Texas and small
numbers contributed from Colorado, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma,
Whitman said.

The military's Northern Command said the Navy hospital ship
Comfort, with 12 operating rooms and 1,000 beds, would soon
depart Baltimore for a weeklong trip to the area, 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 was due to arrive in five days, the Navy said.

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


"This is a developing situation and we are going to make
sure that the department provides the necessary help," Whitman
told a Pentagon briefing on the military response to one of the
worst natural disasters ever to hit the United States.

The military set up a task force at Camp Shelby,
Mississippi to coordinate support for the disaster-relief
effort led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The moves came as the Army Corps of Engineers in New
Orleans 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 the tourist mecca two days
after Katrina ripped ashore.

Initial attempts failed plug a 200-foot (60-meter) gap in
the levee system with the sandbags and concrete barriers, but
officials said they would keep trying.

The Northern Command, which is coordinating help to FEMA,
said that the first of eight military "swift water" rescue
boats and elite civilian crews were flown in from California

Active-duty troops cannot take part in police duties within
the United States, unlike the National Guard and Coast Guard,
the Northern Command said. "Typical defense support of civil
authorities in disasters includes logistics, communications and
medical care," it said.

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 the breach.

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.