Northwest Florida Military Bases Joining Katrina Relief Operations

Military bases in the state have dispatched troops, helicopters, airplanes and other equipment to storm-stricken areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, and they are gearing up to provide more help.

Twenty members of the Florida Guard's 20th Special Forces Group at Camp Blanding, some using boats, were in Mississippi conducting damage assessment and search and recovery missions at Biloxi and Bay St. Louis. They were joined by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers.

The Panama City-based 3rd Battalion, 124th Infantry is gearing up for deployment on Saturday. The unit has about 450 soldiers, many of whom are veterans of the Iraq war.

Patrick Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral, Pensacola Naval Air Station and Mayport Naval Station at Jacksonville also sent rescue helicopters to Mississippi and Louisiana.

About 100 members of the Air Force's 823rd Rapid Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer, better known as RED HORSE, were deployed from Hurlburt Field, about 40 miles east of Pensacola, to Keesler Air Force Base at Biloxi.

"They said that they literally had to ax and chain saw their way there. That's just getting into the base," 1st Lt. Nathan Broshear, a base spokesman, said Wednesday. "They're saying that it's just like deploying into a combat zone."

Combat controllers from the Hurlburt-based Air Force Special Operations Command were preparing to reopen New Orleans International Airport on Thursday, then direct military aircraft evacuating ill or injured people, officials said.

The unit has also flown more than 30 additional aircraft to Jackson, Miss., spokesman Matt Durham said.

Eglin Air Force Base, adjacent to Hurlburt, is providing around-the-clock services for military families displaced by Katrina.

The Navy also Wednesday sent two large hovercraft known as LCACs, or Landing Craft Air Cushioned, with civilian crews from the Panama City Naval Support Activity to Gulfport. From there they were to connect with the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, before heading for New Orleans to help rescue people stranded at New Orleans' Superdome.

Enough food, water and supplies for several hundred people hurriedly were collected from local retailers and placed aboard the LCACs before they departed Panama City.

Tyndall Air Force Base, just east of Panama City, sent nine electricians, three 500-kilowatt generators and an air field pavement assessment team to Keesler.

Pensacola Naval Air Station has been designated as a staging base for four Navy amphibious ships that will be participating in the relief effort. The ships were scheduled to depart their home port at Norfolk, Va., over the next several days.

A dozen firefighters, paramedics, divers, rescue technicians and incident stress managers from the Pensacola base and nearby Whiting Field Naval Air Station have been deployed to Gulfport, Miss., to assist the Seabee (Construction Battalion) Center there.

They are returning a favor to the Seabees who helped the Panhandle bases recover from Hurricane Ivan last year.

Seven corpsmen, medical technicians and other personnel from the Pensacola Naval Hospital also were dispatched to the Navy's Gulfport clinic along with pharmaceuticals, hand sanitizers, mosquito repellant and sun block.

The clinic is caring for about 1,300 military and civilian patients, including residents who had to be moved from the storm-damaged Armed Forces Retirement Home.