Military skills, expertise bring needed relief to those who escaped storm
FORT CHAFFEE MANEUVER TRAINING CENTER, Ark. - Fort Chaffee is known for many things: as training site for thousands of troops from various branches of military service; as an anchor of the northwest Arkansas economy; as a former World War II Army post; and as the place Elvis received his famous haircut. But for now, the Arkansas National Guard training center is known as a safe haven for people displaced by fearsome natural disasters.
Over 2,300 Gulf Coast and New Orleans citizens displaced by Hurricane Gustav have temporarily called Fort Chaffee home since August 30, and the Arkansas National Guard has stepped up a second time in three years to bring needed comfort, care and relief. The post processed over 10,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees in 2005, including some who have returned this year due to Gustav.
Katrina wasn't the first time Fort Chaffee was called on to temporarily house those in need. From 1975 to 1976 the fort was a processing site for refugees from Southwest Asia, and over 25,000 Cuban refugees were processed here in the 1980s.
Even before aircraft and busses filled with displaced citizens left Louisiana, the Guard, Fort Chaffee, the Salvation Army, the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management and local communities had all prepared to see that they were welcome and taken care of. Many of the hard lessons learned during the Katrina disaster were applied well in advance of Gustav's landfall.
For the Arkansas National Guard it is an opportunity to lend unique military skills and expertise to the kind of mission that has defined the Guard, and to put into motion a well oiled organization of leaders, logisticians, care givers and support teams. Everything from housing, to food, to basic necessities, to medical care, to entertainment and information needs was planned for, and is provided to those displaced by the storm.
Fort Chaffee has been a beehive of emergency workers, state and local security personnel, relief agency staffers, and volunteers. Over 200 Soldiers and Airmen work along side of them, and are responsible for the logistical support network that keeps the post running. Col. Louis Landreth, the post commander, says that the sustainment phase of operations has been going well.
"We're executing our plan just as it was designed," says Landreth, "and I'm seeing a lot of cooperation between all the agencies and Fort Chaffee. It's been pretty seamless, really, and the Sebastian County Emergency Management folks have been especially wonderful."
At Fort Chaffee's new warehouse compound, Capt. Louis Gray oversees operations as the logistics and maintenance officer. Forklifts scurry back and forth, carrying fresh supplies from an 18-wheeler parked at the dock. About 20 members of the Arkansas Army National Guard's 142nd Fires Brigade have been called up on state active duty orders and are lending muscle.
"We're running things just as we would normally, except that we have a lot more people doing all of the work now," says Gray. "It's more like an active Army post - we're running 24/7 operations.
"The relief organizations like the Salvation Army are feeding our guests, but we're providing the logistic support," says Gray. "And, at the same time, we're taking care of all of the workers on post. Right now, we're feeding about 350 people a day. And in the middle of all of this, a group of Kansas Army National Guard troops came through on their way to Louisiana," explains Gray. "We housed them overnight, fed them this morning and fueled their vehicles before sending them on their way."
According to Gray, the Arkansas National Guard is responsible for providing housing, bedding and needed personal items to the displaced citizens. By his count, over 10,000 bottles of water have been handed out, along with over 2,500 packaged military meals (MREs - Meals Ready to Eat). They all received a Red Cross personal hygiene kit that included soap, shampoo and other basic items, he said. Baby food, formula and diapers were also handed out as needed.
According to Gray, distribution points for basic needs were set up and continue to provide a variety of clothing and hygiene items. Members of the 142nd run the distribution points in two buildings across the post from the warehouse. A steady steam of guests are provided donated items such as t-shirts, shorts, underwear and socks in one building, while people lined up at a nearby building are handed laundry soap, toilet paper, razors and other bathroom items.
One woman asks for and receives a baggie full of laundry detergent, but says that she only uses a particular brand. Spc. Brad Heard roots through a large box of detergent baggies, sniffing each one he picks up.
"Here, ma'am, this one smells like Gain. I know 'cause that's what I use," he says in a familiar Arkansas accent. She thanks him as she takes the detergent. The guests have open access to post laundry facilities, as well as the post exchange, theatre and an internet café.
In addition to all of the logistics personnel, another contingent of Guard troops is responsible for the day-to-day operations. In the Emergency Operations Center on post, every occupied barracks is listed, including the number and make up of the people housed there. An incident board is taped up on the wall, where any request for support is listed. Sgt. 1st Class Robert Lichti oversees the mid-day team.
"We address any problems that arise on post, determine the appropriate agency to handle the issue, and create a mission to get it resolved," explains Lichti. "There have been some challenges that we don't normally face, but there hasn't been anything we haven't been able to work through."
Back at the warehouse, the forklifts are unloading a shipment of over 4,600 blankets from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. According to Gray the blankets will be distributed along with a new set of bed linens to each guest.
"Although funding sources have been a challenge, the state of Arkansas and donating business have stepped up and really helped out," says Gray.
One of the bundles of blankets is cut open and one is handed to Col. Landreth who is checking on things at the facility.
"Wow, that feels just like a hospital blanket," he says. "Those are really nice quality." Gray nods and calls the operations center to arrange the distribution of the blankets and bedding. He looks out his window at the driving rain the remnants of Gustav is dumping on Fort Chaffee.
"Yea, it's raining and all, but we're going to get this all out to our guests just as quickly as we can," he says.
"It's unfortunate that these people have been displaced," says Landreth, "but we're glad that they're here where we can take care of them. That's what the Guard does."
Current plans have the post's guests returning to their homes as early as September 5 via air and bus transportation.