Missouri National Guard readied for storm relief

Tuesday, September 2, 2008 | 10:23 a.m. CDT; updated 4:17 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 2, 2008

MINDEN, La. — After more than 24 hours on the road, a 25-vehicle convoy from the Missouri National Guard arrived Monday in northern Louisiana only hours after Hurricane Gustav hit land farther south, skirting much of New Orleans but still posing a threat.

About 60 members of the guard's 1139th Military Police Company left the Kansas City suburb of Harrisonville at noon Sunday. They overnighted outside Little Rock, Ark., at Camp Robinson, where they grabbed a few — if any — hours of sleep, then hit the road again Monday for the drive to Minden, outside Shreveport.

Capt. Doug McConnell, who commands the 1139th, called it a pretty successful trip.

"We didn't have any breakdowns or accidents," he said. "But now this is when you have to really put it into gear."

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Gustav hit around 9:30 a.m. near Cocodrie, 72 miles southwest of New Orleans, as a Category 2 storm on a scale of 1 to 5. The storm weakened to a Category 1 later in the afternoon. Forecasters had feared the storm would arrive as a devastating Category 4.

Still, the storm ripped roofs off homes, toppled trees and flooded roads. More than 1 million homes were without power.

In all, more than 1,300 Missouri National Guard troops have been mobilized by Gov. Matt Blunt to assist Louisiana with storm relief.

Members of the 1139th didn't seem daunted during their journey by the hours spent in hot, cramped Humvees and military trucks, nor by the uncertainty of what lay ahead.

"We moan and complain a lot during this part, but when we get there, we get out our gear and get to work," said Sgt. John Randall, 45.

It was unclear what the 1139th would be doing in Louisiana post-Gustav. But policing evacuated or flooded areas was likely, as were other duties such as traffic control, water rescues, or sandbagging.

"But policing, all aspects of it, are what we do best," said McConnell.

It's also what many of the 164 members of the company do or have done for a living.

Randall is a deputy sheriff with the Bourbon County Sheriff's Department. One of his Humvee mates, Sgt. Steve Bechtel, 26, of Harrisonville, is a trooper with the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Others work as police officers.

"You hear some really good cop stories here," said Sgt. Jesus Ramos of Independence, who works in private security.

The company made the journey at convoy speed, traveling about 50 mph in nonairconditioned Humvees. It means taking about four and a half hours to drive what a passenger car could cover in three hours.

But there were spirit-lifting stops for food and fuel at service stations along the way. The sight of two dozen Humvees and military trucks lined up at a Phillips 66 while troops in uniform milled around drew a lot of high-fives, waves and smiles.

"You have to wave a lot," Randall said.

For the night, the 1139th bunked on cots at Camp Minden. Orders about the unit's duties Tuesday were still ahead.

"My concern right now is getting these soldiers some food and a reasonable amount of uninterrupted sleep," McConnell said Monday night. "Then tomorrow we know more."


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