Feds bolster Gulf Coast relief efforts

This 31 August, 2005 US Navy handout ima
A National Guard truck brings supplies to the New Orleans Superdome on Wednesday. Up to 30,000 Guard members could be on the ground in the beleagured Gulf Coast within the next few days to provide aid and security, officials say.Ho / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

The Bush administration intends to seek $10 billion to cover immediate relief needs on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the military is poised to put 30,000 National Guard troops on the ground, officials said Thursday.

Several congressional officials said the $10 billion would cover immediate costs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government’s front-line responder in cases of natural disasters.

Majority Leader Bill Frist was to convene the Senate at 10 p.m. ET Thursday for a vote on a $10 billion supplemental spending bill to pay for hurricane relief and recovery. The House was to convene Friday to pass the bill.

FEMA is spending an estimated $500 million a day as it struggles to respond to devastating flooding in New Orleans and severe destruction that spans the length of the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida.

"The federal government will do its part," President Bush said at a news conference Thursday. "But the private sector needs to do its part, as well."

As part of that effort, Bush announced that his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and former President Bill Clinton would lead a private fund-raising campaign for Katrina victims. The two embarked on a similar joint mission after the devastating Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami in South Asia.

Guard sends more troops to New Orleans
Meanwhile, the military said Thursday it expects to put 30,000 National Guard troops on duty in the Gulf states as demands grow for more security and relief assistance, the commander in charge of military relief and rescue efforts said Thursday.

About 24,000 of those will be on the ground in Louisiana and Mississippi in the next three days, Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said in a telephone interview with reporters at the Pentagon. He also ordered the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan from the Louisiana coast to waters off Biloxi, Miss., to assist with hurricane relief operations there.

By Thursday night, the National Guard expects to boost troop levels to 18,100 in Louisiana and Mississippi. Those numbers could swell to nearly 30,000 in the afflicted region in coming days, the Pentagon said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Thursday that 1,400 National Guard troops per day are being sent in to control looting and lawlessness in New Orleans, quadrupling the regular police force in the city by the weekend.

‘Security is a concern’
Already, 2,800 National Guardsmen are in the city to help local police since Hurricane Katrina produced devastating floods in New Orleans, Chertoff said at a news conference with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Another 1,400 Guard troops and military police units are being added daily, he said.

“Security is a concern,” Gonzales said. “It is a priority.”

National Guard troops are controlled by the governors of individual states.

“We will be deploying into New Orleans a force the size of the New Orleans police department each day, every day, for the next three days. That is a remarkable movement of law enforcement capability into an area that clearly needs augmentation and reinforcement,” Assistant Defense Secretary Paul McHale said.

In all, the Pentagon said more than 320,000 National Guard soldiers, airmen, and their equipment from all states are available to support relief efforts, though it was not immediately clear how many of these assets would actually be sent to the region.

“We continue to build our capability,” Honore said. “It’s a trying situation at best, and the enormity of the task is significant.”

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, commander of National Guard forces, were meeting with President Bush Thursday to brief him on the military response.

Huge disaster zone
With federal disaster declarations covering 90,000 square miles of the Gulf area — an area roughly the size of Great Britain — the scope of the devastation and the federal government's response to it are unprecedented, White House spokesman Scott McLellan said at Thursday press conference.

"This is one of, if not the worst, natural disasters in our nation's history," McLellan said.

Asked if the government had done enough to prepare for the potential destruction a major hurricane could wreak across the low-lying Gulf Coast, McLellan said: "There was a lot of prepositioning of assets even before the arrival of Katrina."

Chertoff said the Coast Guard has rescued 3,000 people from flood and hurricane-damaged areas but acknowledged that continued flooding in New Orleans has made the federal government’s job unusually difficult.

Providing military assets
A fleet of about 50 helicopters would be made available to support federal relief operations, the Pentagon said. Eight civilian swift water rescue teams have been transferred from California to assist with recovery operations.

The Pentagon also planned to provide a 500-bed hospital and is considering deploying as many as 800 personnel to assist the American Red Cross with shelter support.

The Pentagon said it is moving eight ships into the area to provide medical support, humanitarian relief, and transportation. The hospital ship USNS Comfort would be moved into the region from Baltimore, the military said.

The Defense Department was also prepared to provide more than 20 million pre-packaged meals to augment current food supplies.

Carrier to serve as command center
Earlier Thursday, officials said the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman was heading to the Gulf Coast to serve as a floating command center for relief operations.

The USNS Comfort sits docked Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005, in Baltimore. The hospital ship is preparing to leave Baltimore and sail south to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. The Baltimore-based ship is part of the Navy's Military Sealift The Comfort is expected to be part of what many say is the largest domestic disaster relief effort in years. The military is mainly providing search and rescue, medical help and supplies to the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.Command.(AP Photo/Gail Burton)Gail Burton / AP

The Truman and the dock landing ship USS Whidbey Island will join five other Norfolk-based Navy ships that were already under way or in the Gulf as part of the Defense Department contingent being deployed to the stricken region.

In addition, a fast combat support ship based at Naval Station Earl in New Jersey was expected to arrive in the Gulf later Thursday, and there were plans to bring in a rescue and salvage ship to assist with underwater surveys. And the Air Force was sending in a U-2 surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to get detailed, high resolution photographs of the Gulf Coast area.

Marines headed to region
Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Gabrielle Chapin said the Marine Corps Air Station at New River, N.C., had dispatched six CH-53 and two CH-46 transport helicopters to the Gulf Coast, although she did not have more details. At least 120 Marines were headed to the area from New River, Chapin said.

Also, Lt. Col. Bob Thompson, spokesman for Air Force Reserve Command, said volunteer pilots and crews were flying C-130 transports and HH-60 helicopters from Reserve bases in Florida, Alabama and Texas to ferry medical supplies and bring in para-rescue airmen for search and rescue missions in the stricken region.

The military’s plans to assist with recovery efforts don’t involve a large-scale shifting of U.S. troops from Afghanistan or Iraq, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command said Thursday.

But the Pentagon is looking at ways to bring home from the war zones individual service members whose families suffered from the hurricane and need their help, said Lt. Col. Trey Cate, based in Qatar.

Honore said the Mississippi coastline and most structures within three miles of the Gulf of Mississippi were destroyed, and most structures beyond that to Interstate 20 are severely damaged. The challenge, he said, is that the destruction is spread over a large, remote area.

In New Orleans, he said, the devastation is concentrated in a smaller area, but the flooding is hampering efforts to access much of the city.