Mississippi Guard Responds to Hurricane Gustav

By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

GULFPORT, Miss., Sept. 2, 2008 - Labor Day began here yesterday with pounding rain and high-velocity winds from a hurricane that many believed would match the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wrought three years ago, but the coast is clear today and damage was minimal from the weaker-than-expected Hurricane Gustav.

After an assessment of the area, senior officials from the Mississippi National Guard's joint task force headquarters here said the storm was not as intense as forecasters anticipated, and the city should be back to business as usual by the end of the week.

"It was a relief, but not a surprise," said Army Brig. Gen. Ben Gaston, the task force commander. "The Mississippi Gulf was very lucky."

Gustav struck the Gulf Coast yesterday morning. Heavy rain and tornado warnings were in effect for most of the day as the hurricane traveled west into Louisiana and Texas.

Many of Gulfport's citizens evacuated over the weekend, but as they return throughout the week, they'll find that all the traffic lights are operating, few power lines are down, and little debris pollutes the streets. Schools should be in session, and most shops and businesses could be open as early as tomorrow, Gaston said.

With the exception of the roads flooding along the beach, which the Guardsmen had anticipated, the infrastructure is in good condition, he said.

"We had a pretty good read on what the storm surge was going to be, so we really didn't have any major surprises," the general said.

Although Gustav didn't have the impact of Katrina, the seasoned Guardsmen were prepared for the worst. The state's citizen-soldiers and -airmen are familiar with natural disasters and hurricanes.

"We've had a number of devastating storms dating back to the 1960s," Gaston said. "We understand what disaster recovery means to the state."

When the local power grid comes up, the Guard troops should be able to stand down and let the local authorities take over. But until then, they will focus on distributing water, food and ice and conducting presence patrols. They'll also assist local authorities with traffic control points, Gaston said.

"Showing a presence is the most important aspect of our mission right now," he said. "As long as we're showing a presence here, the [citizens] feel safe and protected. Military presence does deter theft and crime."

The citizen-soldiers and -airmen were alerted for their current mission Aug. 28 and began pre-positioning immediately at the Gulfport Army National Guard Readiness Center, Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, and at Vancleave Middle School in Jackson County. After President Bush declared a national state of emergency along the Gulf Coast a day later, the Guardsmen began personal evacuation notifications, eventually evacuating about 2,800 people here.

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