Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Texas National Guard ready for Hurricane Dean strike

by Army Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka, National Guard Bureau

About 4,700 National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, most of them from Texas, are making final preparations Aug. 20 for a rapid response should Hurricane Dean strike the Texas coast the end of August.

Another 5,000 Texas Soldiers and Airmen are poised for activation should Texas Gov. Rick Perry deem it necessary.

As of 8 a.m. Aug. 20, Hurricane Dean was about 440 miles east of Belize City over the Caribbean and was moving west at about 21 mph with maximum sustained winds near 150 mph.

National Weather Service officials described Dean as "extremely dangerous," and said a hurricane warning is in effect for the coast of Belize and the east coast of the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, and warned "preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion."

After it crosses the Yucatan Peninsula and the southwestern Gulf of Mexico, Dean is expected to make its final landfall somewhere along the mainland Mexican coast Aug. 22.

Even if Dean stays south of the border, Texas National Guard officials remain wary about the possibility of flooding in the region. Tropical Storm Erin swept across Texas Aug. 16.

"We are still very concerned, even if the hurricane doesn't wobble north into Texas," said Chief Master Sgt. Gonda Moncada, a Texas National Guard spokesperson. "We are pressing on with our preparations and are still expecting the hurricane to have a major impact on Texas with flooding, especially in the Brownsville area, which is right on the border."

Chief Moncada said no locations in Texas have mandatory evacuation orders, but voluntary evacuations in Brownsville and Galveston have begun. More than 300 Texas Guard members went through bus-driver training over the weekend. Some 1,100 buses are available statewide to assist with transportation and evacuation.

Many of the Texas cities likely to be affected by Hurricane Dean -- including Brownsville, Weslaco and Alice -- have received hurricane response ground force packages from the National Guard.

Each ground force package is a platoon-size element complete with 10 trucks including a 2.5-ton, a five-ton, a fuel truck and a wrecker, said Texas Army Guard Officer Candidate Adam Musil.

Aircraft from 17 different states are already on the ground, with more than 10 members assigned to each aircraft, Chief Moncada said.

Forty-seven helicopters, including CH-47 Chinooks, UH-60 Blackhawks and OH-58 Kiowa observation helicopters, will be available Aug. 21 in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas if aviation assets are required, Mr. Musil said. In addition, C-130 Hercules aircraft from the Texas Air National Guard and other states are on-call to perform air evacuations.

Governor Perry issued a disaster proclamation Aug. 17 and, at his request, President George W. Bush issued a federal disaster declaration for Texas that allows supplemental federal emergency assistance to support staging resources and people necessary to protect lives, property, public health and safety in anticipation of the hurricane.

One example of federal assistance that has already been provided is the Air Force evacuation aircraft and health professionals augmenting the resources already positioned in Texas.

Also, specialized emergency medics are in the final phases of preparation to receive special-need and non-ambulatory patients and transport them to hospitals outside the storm's potential impact area.

Five satellite communications teams are in place and 15 are inbound to re-establish communications if needed. These teams would provide full spectrum communications capabilities among all emergency responders.

"If Texas is spared by the hurricane, then we will be very thankful," Chief Moncada said. "If not, then we are ready to respond."