Thousands of National Guard soldiers in Mississippi and Louisiana who were in Iraq last year when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast will be available to respond this summer if a major hurricane threatens the region.
Almost 40 percent of Mississippi's troops were deployed when Katrina pushed ashore on Aug. 29. Nearly 3,500 were in Iraq with the 155th Brigade Combat Team, which marked the largest combat deployment of Mississippians since World War II.
The 155th returned earlier this year and now almost 97 percent of the men and women are stateside as the start of hurricane season approaches, Maj. Gen. Harold Cross, the state's adjutant general, told The Associated Press on Thursday.
In Louisiana, almost 3,000 of that state's 10,000 soldiers were in Iraq with the 256th Brigade Combat Team when Katrina hit. They began coming home just weeks after the storm made landfall.
"I don't think it would have made much of a difference (if they had not been deployed) but it will be nice to have a full force coming into hurricane season this year,'' said Maj. Ed Bush, a spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard.
Bush said only a few hundred Louisiana soldiers are deployed this year in support of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If there is a large storm, the states will need outside help even though most of their Guard soldiers are home. The Emergency Management Assistance Compact, commonly known as EMAC, brought in nearly 50,000 out-of-state soldiers to the region after Katrina hit, said Lt. Col. Mike Milord, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau.
Louisiana mobilized about 5,000 of its Guard soldiers and more that 20,000 other troops from every state and territory except Mississippi came in to help, Bush said, adding that "Mississippi had their own problems.''
Thousands of troops also came to Mississippi from as far away as Indiana, but Cross said it just wasn't the same as Mississippians protecting their own.
"The force multiplier I get is not just in the numbers of having those soldiers back home, but it's the fact that they are Mississippi National Guardsmen that are familiar with the geography and familiar with the local and city governments and very familiar of the operational capability of their own units,'' Cross said.
He said the Guard has identified safe zones - like aircraft hangers - that made it through Katrina's deadly wind and massive storm surge in the state's six lower counties where 1,500 soldiers can be sent before a storm hits.
There were about 175 Mississippi Guard soldiers - including liaison teams, engineering units and military police officers - sent to the state's three coastal county's emergency operations centers before Katrina made landfall. Another 800 soldiers were positioned at Camp Shelby some 60 miles inland and responded immediately.
This year more soldiers will be on the ready, and the Guard would likely respond to smaller storms because of the thousands of people living in tent cities and travel trailers that are vulnerable to the wind.
"I'll have to react even with a tropical storm whereas I wouldn't have earlier,'' Cross said. "With a Category 1 where we would have put minimal force to bear, I'll probably have my entire package ready to go.''
Cross said the Guard has also been in hurricane training, has planned new response routes and will be on the coast beginning Monday testing its new communication equipment.
In Louisiana, Bush said the Guard's reaction plans have not changed from before Katrina.
"The overall concept is the same,'' he said. "I think what's different on a governmental level is that all of those agencies that are part of the plan, are much more serious about those plans now.''
This could be a busy hurricane season for the soldiers, Bush said.
"The first time that Gulf ripples, we'll get called up,'' he said.