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Utah Guard comes to aid of Louisiana

Guardsmen Maj. Mel Anderson, left, and Staff Sgt. Derek Dimond.
Guardsmen Maj. Mel Anderson, left, and Staff Sgt. Derek Dimond.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

ALEXANDRIA, La. — As Utah's Urban Search and Rescue Team began to wrap up its weeklong deployment Tuesday, members of the Utah National Guard were preparing for their mission.

Task Force One will be arriving in stages over the next week at the Intermediate Staging Base here then will move out to set up a new base camp the next several weeks.

By late evening, their assignment had yet to arrive, increasing speculation that the Guard would be put to work in the heavy damage area between Lake Charles and Lafayette.

Col. Jeff Mitchell, Utah's task force commander, had spent the day surveying the area in preparation for his troops and wanting to get to work as soon as possible.

"I'm all over this stuff," he said. "This is what the Guard is all about right here — getting out and helping our own people get back on their feet."

Approximately 450 Utah National Guardsmen were expected to be sent to Louisiana. About 170 of them will be with the Engineering Corp. helping put the hurricane-damaged areas back together. That group was traveling with a fleet of 38 flatbed trucks loaded with engineering equipment.

The others will be providing security and performing other duties as needed to help the residents of Louisiana. One possible mission being discussed is providing security for 3,000 to 5,000 evacuees being taken to the Cajun Dome near the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. The duty would be similar to their assignment during the 2002 Winter Olympics. Utah will be working under the command of the larger Alabama National Guard.

"Professional and compassionate" is the key behavior characteristic for all Guard troops, Guard officials stressed during a planning meeting Tuesday.

About 5,000 national Guard troops and 10,000 full-time Army members were expected to be deployed to Louisiana over the next several days, Mitchell said.

Members of the Utah National Guard were deployed with little advance notice, some leaving just eight hours after being told where they were headed.

Mitchell said the assignment is unique for Utah because troops from different elements or specialties within the Utah National Guard are being brought together to form a single task force specifically for this mission.

It will help a state that has been taken over entirely by the effects of the hurricanes. Every hotel in the state was booked with evacuees. Most had signs posted on their doors saying "no vacancy." Some hotels even canceled reservations to help house evacuees or Red Cross members.

Gas was in short supply from New Orleans to Alexandria. Grocery stores and other places where supplies could be purchased couldn't keep up with the demand, and most grocery stores closed at 5 p.m. or 8 p.m. — including those that advertised being open 24 hours.

A Wal-Mart employee in Alexandria told one Utah National Guardsman that they were doing twice the business normally seen at Christmas.

Utah National Guard Sgt. Gordon Hyde said the role of the Guard has changed dramatically since 9/11. But providing support and security for its own has always been its top priority. And Utah's involvement with the Olympics has made troops experts at deploying at a moment's notice, and their experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 gives them the confidence to "do it and we do it well," Mitchell said.

He said their confidence is bolstered by his troops knowing they have employers who allow them to leave "our jobs behind and not worry about it," Mitchell said.

Also Tuesday, Utah Task Force One, the state's Urban Search and Rescue Team expected to be home by the weekend, spent another day doing door-to-door searches of homes in a neighborhood just outside downtown New Orleans flooded during Hurricane Katrina.