BAY ST. Louis, Miss. – The deployment of thousands of National Guard troops from Mississippi and Louisiana in Iraq when Hurricane Katrina struck hindered those states’ initial storm response, military and civilian officials said Friday.
Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said that “arguably” a day at most of response time was lost due to the absence of the Mississippi National Guard’s 155th Infantry Brigade and Louisiana’s 256th Infantry Brigade, each with thousands of troops in Iraq.
“Had that brigade been at home and not in Iraq, their expertise and capabilities could have been brought to bear,” said Blum.
Blum said that to replace those units’ command and control equipment, he dispatched personnel from Guard division headquarters from Kansas and Minnesota shortly after the storm struck.
Blum also said that in a worst-case scenario, up to 50,000 additional Guardsmen per month will be needed in Louisiana or Mississippi over the next four months to continue providing relief, law enforcement and other post-hurricane services.
Those 200,000 troops, if needed, would represent nearly two-thirds of the approximately 319,000 Guard troops available nationwide.
Blum said his staff has almost completed a plan for 30-day rotations of Guard units so that no one will have to serve in the Gulf Coast for more than a month.
There are about 30,000 Guardsmen in Iraq, with a smaller number in Afghanistan, Kosovo and elsewhere overseas.
Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., whose waterfront home here was washed away in the storm, told reporters that the absence of the deployed Mississippi Guard units made it harder for local officials to coordinate their initial response.
“What you lost was a lot of local knowledge,” Taylor said, as well as equipment that could have been used in recovery operations.
“The best equipment went with them, for obvious reasons,” especially communications equipment, he added.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said this week that the Pentagon has the ability to cope with both Katrina and the Iraq war: “We can and will do both.”
Asked on Tuesday about critics who said the commitment of large numbers of troops to the Iraq conflict hindered the military’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Rumsfeld said, “Anyone who’s saying that doesn’t understand the situation.”
Blum said that overall, the Iraq mission for Guard units across the nation is not limiting the military’s ability to expand and continue the rescue and recovery operations in storm-battered states.
“Iraq and other overseas commitments do not inhibit our ability to sustain this effort here at home,” Blum said in an interview with three reporters who flew here with him from Washington on Friday.