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NEW ORLEANS--Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air/Ground Task Force St. Bernard load a trailer with supplies Sept. 19 in preparation for a second hurricane to hit the New Orleans area. The Marines have opted to wait out the storm at Naval Air Station Belle Chasse to be ready to provide immediate assistance.

Photo by Sgt. Tracee L. Jackson

Marines gear up to take on Rita

21 Sep 2005 | Sgt. Tracee L. Jackson 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit

Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air/Ground Task Force St. Bernard had a change of plans this week as Hurricane Rita aimed in on the Gulf Coast.  Only a few days ago, the SPMAGTF was getting ready to say goodbye to the storm-ravaged New Orleans area to leave continuing relief efforts in the hands of capable professionals.  Now, the task force has relocated and reorganized in theatre to prepare for a possible round two.

Until recently, Katrina was the only lady in the life of the SPMAGTF.  Today, the spotlight belongs to Hurricane Rita, who’s packing a potential punch not only to the shores of Texas, but also to the already damaged New Orleans area.

Lt. Col. Daniel D. Kelly, executive officer for the task force, explained the sudden change of wind for his previously homeward-bound unit.

“We’ve moved major units either onboard ships or outlying areas that survived the storm last time in preparation for being ready to come back in and take care of situations in New Orleans,” he said. “The hurricane isn’t tracking to hit here, but the storm surge could cause additional damage and we may need to come back down here and start operations all over again.”

Staff Sgt. Marcus Barrus, the administrative chief for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, is in charge of keeping a head count of all personnel attached with the SPMAGTF.  He broke down the numbers to show how the reorganization of assets meets the mission of mitigating damage after the storm blows over.

“The Marines from (1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment) previously at Michoud (NASA Assembly Facility) has been moved onto the (USS) Iwo Jima,” he said, “We have some Marines who have moved to Gulfport and Meridian, Miss. also.”  Barrus also indicated all Marines who were in Slidell will stay put for the storm, which is anticipated to hit within the next few days.

“The big concern was that we had a lot of Marines, specifically who were hanging out in the field.  We wanted to move them in to a structured area and out of open areas.  It’s a more safe environment for them.”

Kelly acknowledged the weakened state of New Orleans due to the breakage of the city’s levee system, which had previously held the tide back from the city, which is largely situated below sea level.  However, the SPMAGTF has also considered making tracks wherever Rita’s devastation hits hardest.

The logic behind all the relocating gives all Marines attached to the SPMAGTF a safe place to hunker down through the high winds and pounding rain.  After the skies clear a little, they’ll be ready to step up to the plate immediately, if necessary.

“We’re considering other operations where we have Marines slated to go to Galveston, Texas,” he said, referring to Rita’s most high-profile target thus far, “We’ll be ready to support operations that happen in that area.”

“The Iwo Jima is basically a storm chaser,” said Barrus, “hopefully, we can provide an immediate response wherever they need us most.”

Cpl. Christian Womble, a supply warehouseman with the 24th MEU, has been busy organizing, accounting and packing shipping containers to anchor the Marines’ effects from the expected winds.

“I’m expecting the worst, but hoping for the best,” he said, summarizing the can-do attitude of the Marines on an extended mission.

“We, as Marines, are always flexible,” said Kelly, “In our planning and direction, we set ourselves up to be that way.  We’re able to go in all four cardinal directions,” he said confidently, “It’ll be interesting to see where it hits landfall and the effects we’ll deal with.”