Opelousas., La., recovers from Gustav with help of Mo. National Guard

Wednesday, September 3, 2008 | 4:09 p.m. CDT

OPELOUSAS, La. — Hurricane Gustav might not have lived up to its dire possibilities and the chance of being a repeat Hurricane Katrina; this time the levees held, and New Orleans, while battered, is standing.

But don't tell that to the people of Opelousas or to the members of the 1139th Military Police Company of the Missouri National Guard, which have come here to help them.

"This was worse than Katrina for us," said Deputy Jimmy Darbonne of the St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Department as he drove around Opelousas on Wednesday surveying the damage.

"I've never seen destruction like this in all my 62.8 years," Darbonne said. "We got hit bad."

Gustav pulled into Opelousas, about 160 miles northwest of New Orleans, late Monday, ripping up decades-old pecan and cedar trees, downing power lines and causing power outages to about 90 percent of the town of about 20,000.

The 1139th arrived before dark Tuesday, just before the dusk curfew. Within a couple hours, the unit had 24 members on patrol in 12 locations, including prime looting targets such as pharmacies and places with weapons and generators.

On Wednesday night, the unit was also scheduled to guard the few working gas stations in town, where lines on Wednesday were 20 cars deep and waits were about an hour.

Police Chief Perry Gallow stood in the rain in a poncho shaking hands with other National Guardsmen who were helping out at a distribution center where residents were receiving packaged meals and ice. Cars were lined up for six city blocks with people waiting for the donations.

"I was just going around thanking these guys for coming here and telling them how much I appreciate it," Gallow said. "It's really important that they're here."

Staff Sgt. Robert Mathews was on patrol Tuesday night until about dawn, when the town's curfew lifts. The work was a relief, he said, after three days on the road.

"There are a lot of places in town that are completely destroyed," Mathews said. "It's a hurricane. It's not Katrina, but it's a hurricane.

"The people here are all glad we're here, and a couple of them want to cook us some gumbo sometime this week."

It's unclear how long the 1139th will stay in Opelousas, but Chief Deputy Hilman Popillon of the St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Department, which has about 20 officers, said he hoped the group stays until the power is restored.

"We took a direct hit from Gustav, and the Guard troops give us some relief from having to patrol strategic locations and that lets us respond to other calls."

Darbonne, who has lived in the parish all his life and greets most people in Cajun, said the town would make it through.

"You have your winters, and all that snow, up north," Darbonne said as he kept an ear to the radio because of reports of more bad weather. "Hurricanes are what we deal with."


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