A reporter from The Oregonian is embedded with local National Guard troops sent to New Orleans and has been reporting daily on their role in the relief effort. Today, Harry Esteve talks about the lack of support for the troops that are in place and the conditions they have encountered:
Daily miseries complicate relief mission for Oregon Guardsmen in New Orleans, Harry Esteve, The Oregonian: NEW ORLEANS -- In a city without power or running water, meeting the basic needs of more than 1,700 soldiers and airmen has become an exercise in cunning, brazen "borrowing" and head-shaking frustration for the Oregon National Guard.
The soldiers work in relentless heat and humidity, stomping through trash-filled streets and mucky flood residue. Bleach spray and bottled hand cleaner keep bacteria away. "I've seen better days, sir," sweat-soaked Pfc. John Clevenger of the 41st Brigade Combat Team responded when asked how he was faring. Clevenger, 19, of Keizer has been sleeping in the open and hasn't had a shower since he arrived Saturday.
The extraordinary logistical challenges facing the Oregon Guardsmen and thousands of other soldiers patrolling the streets illustrate the extent to which the city's infrastructure has been smashed beyond recognition. As the final detachment of about 500 soldiers rolled in Thursday, the ability to care for them took on a new urgency. Private contractors, who usually handle tasks such as trash disposal or sewage control, are swamped, and with only a handful of New Orleans businesses operating on the outskirts of town, there is no place to buy equipment.
Austere conditions come with the job. But the chronic lack of sanitary facilities, combined with frequent contact with contaminated floodwaters, worries Sgt. Maj. Brunk Conley, who spends hours working the logistics of housing what has become the largest Oregon National Guard mobilization since World War II. "These guys have been to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, so they're used to hard living," Conley said. "But this is much more challenging. We have no creature comforts whatsoever." In Iraq, soldiers sleep in air-conditioned tents, shower nightly if they choose and eat from a well-stocked mess tent. In New Orleans, showers have yet to materialize. The only escape from the heat comes with nighttime breezes, and the food comes in prepackaged military rations, called meals ready to eat.
Regardless, Guard troops kept a steady pace Thursday. As floodwaters receded by more than a foot, patrols from the 1186th Military Police Company, based in Milton-Freewater, drove into areas of the city previously accessible only by boats, which the Oregon Guard lacks. They brought out 18 evacuees, including a 2-year-old who had been holed up in an attic with her parents. They also found a body.
Timing has hampered Oregon's preparedness. The first plane carrying Oregon troops and cargo left last Friday, less than 48 hours after the unit was called to duty. They flew to New Orleans with little more than their clothes, cots and weapons. Commanders hoped some supplies would be available locally while they waited for their equipment. But so did 40,000 other Guard troops who have swarmed to the area, overwhelming local efforts to provide necessities. Units have resorted to bartering, begging and sometimes stealing from each other.
The biggest problem, Conley said, has been a severe shortage of portable latrines. For the first three days, Oregon troops had none. The usual solution is to dig a trench, but that proved unworkable in a city where the water table lies inches below the surface. Three latrines showed up on the fourth day. "We got them in the middle of the night," said Capt. Trent Klug, commanding officer of the 1186th Military Police Company, encamped at an evacuated convent. "Let's just leave it at that."
Guard troops have established makeshift bases throughout a sprawling section of northeast New Orleans, which is their area of operations. Troops bed down in a nunnery; a dark, cavernous warehouse full of zinc ingots; an upscale fine arts college across the street; and a Coast Guard armory. Like Pvt. Clevenger, most sleep in the open. On Wednesday night, swarms of mosquitoes attacked, and soldiers draped their cots in netting and lit bug-repellent torches.
"This is about creativity and ingenuity," Brig. Gen. Doug Pritt, commander of Oregon Guard forces in Louisiana, told his staff at a briefing Thursday. The meeting was held in the art school library. Soldiers had carefully covered the shelves in canvas and paper to minimize damage. Much like the residents who refuse to leave the flood-stricken city, Oregon troops have grown adept at prying what they can from their surroundings.
City buses, abandoned during the storm and trashed by looters, have been restored and used by troops to ferry evacuees to safety. Oregon soldiers struck a deal with a tire mechanic to fix flats on their Humvees. In exchange, the soldiers take him ice, a rare commodity in New Orleans. Conditions are likely to improve over time. With each day, more generators are brought on line, fans have begun turning, and the number of latrines has grown. "If you believe in evolution, then things are getting better," said Lt. Col. Bradley Kohn of the 41st Brigade. "Things are trickling in."
Harry Esteve: 503-221-8226; email@example.com