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U.S. military to assist relief effort with aircraft, logistical support

WASHINGTON—The Pentagon's U.S. Northern Command plans to set up a task force to help federal disaster authorities bring relief by military aircraft and amphibious vehicles to communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The task force plans to have its headquarters at Camp Shelby, Miss., said Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for U.S. Northern Command. It has established Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., as a staging area for supplies and personnel.

The task force will assist federal disaster-relief authorities primarily with aircraft and other logistical support. The Federal Emergency Management Agency requested it, Kucharek said.

"We have some unique capabilities such as airlift and amphibious vehicles that FEMA doesn't have," he said. "I think there's a realization that the devastation is so widespread that they are going to need more support than they can provide on their own."

U.S. Northern Command was set up in 2002 primarily to coordinate military efforts in support of homeland security. Similar task forces were used during this year's G-8 summit at Sapelo Island, Ga., the presidential inauguration last January and in relief efforts after four hurricanes struck Florida last year. The command is based at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

The command already has sent two helicopters and crews that will enable federal disaster experts to assess the extent of the damage in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

More than 9,000 National Guardsmen have been called to duty for hurricane relief work in those three states, Kucharek said.

More than 3,800 Guardsmen in Louisiana were assisting with debris removal, water and food distribution, medical treatment and local law enforcement, said Jack Harrison, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Washington.

Though the Louisiana Guard's 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Task Force has been deployed to Iraq, more than 65 percent, or about 6,500 Guardsmen, were still available for state duty, Harrison said.

In Mississippi, nearly 2,000 Army and Air National Guardsmen had been called to duty, basing their operations out of Camp Shelby, Harrison said.

Two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters on a training mission at Camp Shelby from the Georgia National Guard have remained there to support relief operations, said Lt. Col. Jim Driscoll, a spokesman for the Georgia National Guard.

In Alabama, 1,600 National Guardsmen were on duty, carrying out search and rescue missions and working with Alabama Emergency Management Agency authorities to provide food, water, medical treatment and other humanitarian assistance, said Lt. Col. Bob Horton, a spokesman for the Alabama National Guard.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley approved sending 300 military police and 500 engineers from the Alabama National Guard to assist with relief efforts in neighboring Mississippi, Horton said. More than 450 infantrymen have been sent to Mobile, Ala., to help local police maintain order, but they'll play only a supporting role, he said.

In Florida, 700 part-time troops from the Army and Air National Guard were distributing ice and water in areas Katrina had hit in the southern part of the state. The Guardsmen were prepared to provide logistical support for Louisiana and Mississippi if necessary, said Harrison, of the National Guard Bureau.

In Arkansas, more than 350 combat engineers, military police, medics and truck drivers from the Arkansas National Guard were preparing to leave Wednesday to assist with relief efforts in Mississippi, said Capt. Christine Munn, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas National Guard.

The Arkansas National Guard dispatched two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters Tuesday to carry out search and rescue operations from Gulfport, Miss., Munn said.

More than 98,000 National Guardsmen from 17 other states were prepared to provide further assistance if required, Harrison said.

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

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