Task Force Utah Offers

Helping Hand in Louisiana

 

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Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde,

128th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

Published October 20, 2005

       
A Pecan Island, La., home with severe damage from Hurricane Rita.

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde

A Pecan Island, La., home with severe damage from Hurricane Rita.

ABBEVILLE, La. When the Utah National Guard’s Task Force Utah advance party arrived in Louisiana Sept. 25, no one knew where they would be assigned.

Initially, Task Force Louisiana considered splitting up Utah's approximately 450 Soldiers and Airmen to augment existing forces throughout the area; however task force commander Col. Jeffrey Mitchell felt it was important to keep Utah’s team together. With a little effort he convinced Louisiana’s operations officer that Utah’s contingent would be more effective as a separate unit.

A few days later when the majority of Utah’s forces arrived, they headed to the coast near the small town of Abbeville.  Surprisingly, most of Abbeville seemed to be unaffected by the storm.

At first, some Soldiers wondered why they were there, but it didn't take long for them to see the overwhelming needs. Other nearby cities and farming communities had been hit hard by Hurricane Rita.

A National Guard convoy moves through the town of Pecan Island, La.

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde

A National Guard convoy moves through the town of Pecan Island, La.

Only a few miles away in the towns of Erath and Delcambre, floodwaters finally receded allowing residents to go back to their damaged homes.  By then, local city officials and police officers had reached a breaking point. One newspaper headline depicted the acting mayor of Erath tearfully begging Louisiana's governor for help. 

One of Mitchell's first steps was to assign two liaison officers to meet with city mayors daily. Lt. Cols. Dallen Atack and Robert Dunton assumed that role.

Tasks began pouring in.  Many police officers had been working nonstop for over a week.  Guard members eased their burden by providing crowd control, security checkpoints and roving patrols.  They also assisted residents by loading food and water at aid points. 

 

Staff Sgt. Steven Greenwell, 115th Engineers, left, uses a chainsaw to cut through debris in a city park in Delcambre, La.

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde

Staff Sgt. Steven Greenwell, 115th Engineers, left, uses a chain saw to cut through debris in a city park in Delcambre, La.

The presence of Soldiers seemed to have a calming effect on the community. Looting incidents decreased dramatically and to locals, it seemed that the outside world was finally paying attention to their needs.

Citizens in several nearby farming communities were also struggling. Jesse Pitrie a volunteer from Cow Island was glad to see the troops.

“The people here need help and many are too proud to ask for it. We appreciate you guys being here,” Pitrie said.

As the situation stabilized, the cleanup began.  Schools, cemeteries, and parks were inundated with mud and swamp debris. Clearing the mess became one of the tasks for Utah Guard engineers.

Staff Sgt. Steven Greenwell, 115th Engineers, was excited to be doing ‘hands-on’ type work.

"Today feels really good to be out in public and to be able to see people cleaning their yards while we’re helping clean their parks,” Greenwell said. “I would have never believed that the water here reached the 10-foot level."

Throughout the various cleanup sites one threat was constant: poisonous snakes.  It seemed that Louisiana’s entire snake population had been uprooted and scattered throughout the debris.  In one location, Soldiers found and killed 30 snakes in a one-hour period.  Although Guard members may have preferred relocating the venomous critters, their sheer numbers prevented that from being feasible—especially near populated areas.

Spc. Neil Johnson, left, Spc. Matthew Wilde, center, and Sgt. 1st Class Greg Cheney, 1457th Engineer Battalion, prepare to move a cement burial vault at a Mouton Cove, La., cemetery.

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde

Spc. Neil Johnson, left, Spc. Matthew Wilde, center, and

Sgt. 1st Class Greg Cheney, 1457th Engineer Battalion, prepare

 to move a cement burial vault at a Mouton Cove, La., cemetery.

Another unusual sight was the condition of many of the cemeteries.  Caskets were scattered throughout the area. Some ended up by nearby roads while others drifted long distances into swamps and fields.  Most caskets were enclosed in cement casings weighing between 1,500 and 3,000 pounds, but in spite of that weight the force of the water was strong enough to move them easily. Moving them back was not so easy.  Guard engineers used heavy equipment to lift and transport caskets back to cemeteries.    

As missions continued, newspaper headlines in the area praised the efforts of Task Force Utah.  One article featured a story along with two pages of photos showing Utah National Guard members helping in the community.  The headline read: 'Helping Hand: Utah's National Guard 450 strong throughout Vermilion [Parish].'

Mitchell said that thus far he has had several key people who have made Task Force Utah a success.

This cottonmouth snake was among many found by Utah Engineers under a pile of rubble in Delcambre Park, La.

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde

This cottonmouth snake was among many found by

Utah Engineers under a pile of rubble in Delcambre Park, La.

“Maj. Andy Archuleta and his team deserve tremendous credit for providing  the redundant (multiple) means of communication to run the operation.  Because of that we’ve been able to perform our mission,” Mitchell said.

"A second person who really deserves recognition is Lt. Col. Derek Tolman, executive officer for Task Force Utah,” Mitchell added.

According to Mitchell, Tolman supervised the staff so that Mitchell could focus his time more effectively.  “[Tolman] has just performed above par.”  Mitchell said.   

Mitchell, believes many other individuals have also been key to Utah’s success. Among those who stand out are Lt. Col. Atack, who leads the security element, and Lt. Col. Dunton, who heads up the “Sappers” (Engineers).

Mitchell is also pleased with the staff at Utah National Guard headquarters in Draper, Utah.

Task Force Utah Commander Col. Jeffrey Mitchell, left, Utah National Guard Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, center, and Command Sgt. Maj. Dell Smith observe Engineer operations.

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde

Task Force Utah Commander Col. Jeffrey Mitchell, left,

Utah National Guard Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, center, and Command Sgt. Maj. Dell Smith observe Engineer operations.

“I  couldn’t be more happy with the support we’ve received out of Utah,” Mitchell said,  “With the folks back at the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) and the command back there, they’ve been very supportive—every single person.  It’s been an amazing operation.” 

“When I look at the Soldiers, they are the main reason for Task Force Utah’s success.  I really want to praise them for the outstanding work that they‘ve done.  That’s according to the feedback I’ve received from the community. They’re all saying what a tremendous group of Soldiers we have,” said Mitchell.

This week Task Force Utah began sending Soldiers into New Orleans to perform security missions. Although Mitchell  preferred to keep these troops in Vermillion Parish, he is confident they will handle whatever task they are assigned.

“When the mission is done we’ll go home, but for now we’re here for the long haul,” Mitchell said.