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American Forces Press Service

Marines Complete Hurricane-Relief Mission

American Forces Press Service

NAVAL AIR STATION NEW ORLEANS, La., Sept. 30, 2005 A specially tailored Marine task force ordered to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is headed home after wrapping up its work in some of the region's most devastated communities.

More than 1,200 active-duty Marines will return to their home base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in the coming week and resume preparations for a scheduled deployment in the spring.

The departing Marines, part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, were among thousands of troops summoned by the president to bolster relief efforts in the desperate days following Katrina's impact.

"The intent was clear," said Marine Col. John Shook, commander of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force St. Bernard, named for the Louisiana parish that would become the focus of the Marines' efforts. "Do whatever we could to help save lives and ease the suffering of those who survived. We approached our mission with a sense of purpose and accomplished what we set out to do."

In the first two weeks following the Aug. 29 storm, the Marines searched more than 5,000 homes; rescued 610 stranded residents; transported nearly 1,500 other displaced citizens; delivered two million pounds of supplies; and cleared debris from more than 1,000 homes, schools, and municipal buildings.

Their efforts began just hours after the levees burst, as Marines from the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion and the Corps' Anti-Terrorism Battalion rushed to the scene from their bases in the stricken area.

On Aug. 30, Marine helicopters and amphibious vehicles began pulling survivors to safety.

Most of those rescues were carried out by the task force's air component, composed of Marines of the Reserve 4th Marine Air Wing and their active-duty counterparts from the 2nd Marine Air Wing, who flew in on Sept. 1 to help.

During three days of nearly continuous daylight sorties, four UH-1N Huey utility helicopters -- working in tandem with a mix of heavy-lift CH-53Es and medium-lift CH-46Es -- plucked 446 people from rooftops, highway overpasses, and other hard-to-reach high ground where residents had taken refuge.

As the helicopters began their three-day run, an advance team from the headquarters element of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit arrived at the air station here to pave the way for additional forces.

At the same time, nearly 300 Marines from MEU Service Support Group 24 -- constituting the bulk of the task force's logistics component -- were making their way down the Atlantic coast on two naval vessels launched from Norfolk, Va. They brought with them an array of engineering equipment well suited to disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, including forklifts, large trucks, Humvees and water-purification devices.

By the evening of Sept. 4, some 700 Marines from 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, had arrived.

As Marines and sailors continued to pour into the region -- the task force would soon swell to 2,500 -- leadership shifted to Maj. Gen. Douglas O'Dell, commander of the New Orleans-based 4th Marine Division, a reserve unit.

The Marines fanned out to three areas initially: Michoud, just east of New Orleans; Slidell, east of Lake Pontchartrain; and Picayune, just over the state line in Mississippi. They would later move most of the task force to Michoud, keeping the anti-terrorism battalion in Slidell.

Most of the Marines spent the ensuing week wading through St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans, rendered a swamp after water levels in some sections of the parish rose to 15 feet in the storm's wake.

Using amphibious vehicles called "amtracs," members of 1/8 and 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion -- joined by local police and soldiers from the 169th Colorado National Guard --- churned through the fetid, flooded streets in search of survivors.

After multiple sweeps that included a stop at every structure in the parish, the Marines completed their search Sept. 13, having rescued 78 residents.

The mission in St. Bernard Parish was brought to a formal close five days later with a memorial service honoring parish residents who died in the storm and its aftermath.

"We were determined to do as much as we possibly could in the time available to us," Shook said. "We set out to make a difference, to offer a lifeline, to give the local leaders enough time to get their feet under them again."

As they spent what appeared to be their final few days in Louisiana clearing roads, removing debris from homes, schools and key government facilities, and helping leaders in both St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes prepare for the return of business owners and residents, Hurricane Rita bore down on the Gulf Coast. The Marines repositioned themselves to ensure their own safety and enable a rapid response wherever Rita came ashore.

The morning of Sept. 24 bore witness to the new path of destruction cut by Rita across southwest Louisiana and coastal Texas.

The Marines of the anti-terrorism battalion were directed to Lafayette, La. Driving through the remnants of Rita's foul weather, they arrived within hours of the storm's impact. They synchronized their efforts with soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, who had come from New Orleans to help.

By the evening of Sept. 25, the Marines had rescued 26 people in New Iberia, La.

Farther west, Marines from 1/8 moved ashore from the USS Iwo Jima to help the devastated town of Cameron re-establish the parish courthouse as the center of local relief efforts.

Shook said the Marines' response was critical in helping the Gulf Coast recover from what he called "this double-whammy hurricane attack."

"The Marines are tired, but proud of the difference they made," he added.

As the Marines return to North Carolina this week, they will immediately pick up where they left off, readying themselves for an intensive pre-deployment training program due to begin in December.

Most of the Marines, including 1/8 and MSSG-24, are scheduled to deploy with the 24th MEU in the spring.

(From a Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force news release.)

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