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Military dispatches ships and helicopters to assist in hurricane relief

WASHINGTON—The U.S. military dispatched ships, helicopters and hundreds of disaster experts and rescue personnel to the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday as federal authorities began an unprecedented relief effort in the wake of deadly Hurricane Katrina.

"Our commitment is unequivocal," said Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul McHale at a Washington news conference with officials from the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies. "We stand in a supporting role, and we are not only willing, we are eager in a time of national crisis to provide whatever relief we can."

With Hurricane Katrina shaping up as one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, the military began pouring equipment, supplies and personnel into the Gulf Coast region.

Four MH-53 and two HH-60 helicopters from the amphibious assault ship Bataan began flying search-and-rescue missions in Louisiana late Tuesday, said Lt. Herb Josey, a Navy spokesman. The ship was already at sea, riding out the storm from its home port in Ingleside, Texas. The Swift, a Navy high-speed vessel also from Ingleside, accompanied the Bataan and will provide assistance, Josey said.

U.S. military aircraft flew eight civilian swift-water rescue teams from California to Lafeyette, La., on Wednesday, said Lt. Jody Vasquez, a spokeswoman for U.S. Northern Command, which is spearheading the military's relief efforts. The teams are equipped with small, rigid-hulled boats, which will be used to pull stranded people from flooded homes.

In Baltimore, the hospital ship Comfort took on fresh medical supplies and prepared to set sail. McHale said the ship would leave Baltimore on Friday and arrive off the Gulf Coast by Sept. 8. The ship has 1,000 hospital beds.

McHale said the Pentagon anticipates setting up an additional 500-bed mobile hospital in New Orleans.

Three Army helicopters from Fort Hood, Texas, were dispatched to Baton Rouge, La.; another three went to Camp Shelby, Miss. They'll be used to fly federal disaster assessment teams over stricken areas, Vasquez said.

Five Air Force helicopters from Patrick Air Force Base in Florida and Moody Air Force Base in Georgia had arrived in Mississippi to carry out search-and-rescue missions, Vasquez said.

McHale said the Pentagon plans to make 50 military helicopters available to Federal Emergency Management Agency officials. The military also could provide more than 1.5 million cases of packaged military food rations, if necessary, he said.

FEMA authorities are taking the lead role in assessing damage and kick-starting relief efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi, but defense officials said they were ready to offer whatever support was needed.

About 100 military personnel from Fort Gillem in Georgia arrived at Camp Shelby to coordinate military assistance with federal and state officials, said Lt. Col. Rich Steele, spokesman for Joint Task Force Katrina.

Task Force commander Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore flew by helicopter over flooded areas of Mississippi and Louisiana to survey damage and later met with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to find out what assistance the military could provide.

Steele said state and federal officials had requested additional helicopters more than any other single piece of equipment. The military's job in the relief effort, he said, was to provide whatever resources state and local authorities couldn't provide.

McHale, the assistant secretary of defense, said more than 11,000 National Guard troops in the gulf states had been activated for the disaster. Those part-time troops would remain under the control of the governors in each state, he said.

Jim Harrison, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Washington, said National Guard troops and equipment from more than 20 states have been sent to Mississippi and Louisiana or are ready to deploy. Five-ton trucks and other military vehicles that can navigate through flooded areas were in high demand, he said.

Louisiana and Mississippi are short on some critical personnel and equipment because each state has about 3,000 National Guard troops in Iraq.

Harrison said 106,300 National Guard troops from states "in or near the region" could be called upon.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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