With thousands of their citizen-soldiers away fighting in Iraq, states hit hard by Hurricane Katrina scrambled to muster forces for rescue and security missions yesterday -- calling up Army bands and water-purification teams, among other units, and requesting help from distant states and the active-duty military.
As the devastation threatened to overwhelm state resources, federal authorities called on the Pentagon to mobilize active-duty aircraft, ships and troops and set up an unprecedented task force to coordinate a wider military response, said officials from the Northern Command, which oversees homeland defense.
National Guard officials in the states acknowledged that the scale of the destruction is stretching the limits of available manpower while placing another extraordinary demand on their troops -- most of whom have already served tours in Iraq or Afghanistan or in homeland defense missions since 2001.
More than 6,000 Guard members were mobilized in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida when the storm struck on Monday, with the number rising to 8,000 yesterday and hundreds more expected to be called to active duty, National Guard officials said yesterday.
"Missing the personnel is the big thing in this particular event. We need our people," said Lt. Andy Thaggard, a spokesman for the Mississippi National Guard, which has a brigade of more than 4,000 troops in central Iraq. Louisiana also has about 3,000 Guard troops in Baghdad.
Mississippi has about 40 percent of its Guard force deployed or preparing to deploy and has called up all remaining Guard units for hurricane relief, Thaggard said. Those include the Army band based in Jackson, Miss. "They are mustering transportation to move them south," he said. Soldiers who have lost their homes are exempt, he said.
Mississippi has requested troops and aircraft from about eight other states -- including military police and engineers from Alabama, helicopters and crews from Arkansas and Georgia, and aircraft-maintenance experts from Connecticut, who are filling in for a Mississippi maintenance unit that is heading to the Middle East.
"This is the biggest disaster we've ever had, so we're going to need more aircraft than we've got," said Col. Bradly S. MacNealy, the Mississippi Army National Guard's aviation officer. Mississippi has had to borrow from Arkansas UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters fitted with hoists, using them together with the Coast Guard to pluck to safety several dozen people stranded by floodwaters, he said.
Chinook helicopters from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi are flying the equivalent of 18 large truckloads of critical supplies -- including ice, water, food and chain saws for road-clearing crews -- to Mississippi's coast, he said.
In Alabama, all the major Guard units activated for the disaster have already served in Iraq, and some still have contingents there, said Alabama Guard spokesman Norman Arnold.
Capt. Richard Locke of the Guard's 1st Battalion 167th Infantry headed toward Mobile yesterday with a force of 400 soldiers cobbled together from four units because the rest of the battalion is in Iraq.
Carrying M-16 rifles and 9mm pistols, the soldiers are assigned to control traffic at unlighted intersections, and patrol in Humvees and on foot to prevent looting.
Recruiting and retention problems are worsening the strain on Guard forces in hurricane-ravaged states. Alabama's Army National Guard has a strength of 11,000 troops -- or 78 percent of the authorized number. "We're just losing too many out the back door," Arnold said.