Marines begin sweep through St. Bernard Parish

10 Sep 2005 | Capt. David E. Nevers

Two hundred Marines began a deliberate, house-to-house search Friday through a swath of heavily flooded territory east of downtown New Orleans, continuing their effort to rescue survivors of Hurricane Katrina and deliver aid to those in need.

The Marines of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force St. Bernard – a nod to the parish that will be the focus of the Marines’ attention in the coming days – are determined not to leave anybody behind.

“We believe, based on the steady stream of folks we’ve been evacuating in the last several days, that there are still people in need of rescue,” said Col. John Shook, commander of the Marine task force operating in St. Bernard Parish. “As long as that’s the case, we’re going to keep searching for them.”

Shook hastened to add that his Marines will not be forcibly removing residents from their homes.

“That is not our mission,” he said. “We’re here to offer rescue and relief.”

The Marines will move through the community in their amphibious vehicles, called amtracs, which have proved highly useful in negotiating the flooded streets elsewhere in and around New Orleans.

They’ll operate alongside local police and the 169th Colorado National Guard, with whom they’ve partnered to ensure any law-enforcement functions can be handled by the appropriate authorities.

While the Marines have not been charged with recovering remains and do not anticipate such a mission, they will assist in marking their location and coordinating with mortuary-affairs specialists.

Shook vowed the grim task would be handled with the utmost dignity and respect.

“They will be treated as if they were family,” he said. “Because in a sense they are. They’re fellow Americans.”

The fresh initiative in St. Bernard Parish comes as the Marine component of the military response took on a new structure to better serve the needs of local officials.

Task Force St. Bernard, composed mainly of elements of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force and a slice of the reserve 4th Marine Division, is led by Shook and centered in eastern New Orleans and in Slidell, La.

A separate unit – Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Slidell -- is based northeast of New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain. It includes elements of both the 1st and 2nd II MEFs and the 4th Marine Division.

Leading all 2,600 active-duty and reserve Marines in the Gulf Coast region is Maj. Gen. Douglas O’Dell, commander of the 4th Marine Division.

Since Sept. 1, when Marine helicopters arrived in the area and began rescuing stranded survivors from rooftops, highway islands and other hard-to-reach spots, the Marines have evacuated more than 500 area residents.

While focusing on the rescue mission as long as necessary, Marines have begun to expand their relief efforts, bringing sustenance and other support to residents of eastern New Orleans and Slidell.

On Thursday, the operation’s first day, Marines delivered some 80,000 pounds of food, water, ice and other humanitarian-assistance supplies. After a full week of Marine operations in the area, that figure stood at more than 650,000 pounds.

Marines have also begun the rebuilding process for many communities, helping to clean homes, yards, churches, nursing homes, and the local police and fire departments.

For more information, contact Capt. David Nevers at 910-548-8008 or at neversde@24meufwd.usmc.mil.