Norwalk Guard unit heads south in Gustav's wake

NORWALK Hurricane Gustav didn't live up to the hype. Expected to be the "mother
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

NORWALK

Hurricane Gustav didn't live up to the hype.

Expected to be the "mother of all storms," Gustav didn't do a quarter of the damage predicted, and the levees in New Orleans held strong.

But that doesn't mean Gustav simply fizzled out.

National news reports indicate that much of the Gulf Coast was slammed by the storm system, and the coastal region suffered billions of dollars in losses.

Gov. Ted Strickland is sending about 1,500 National Guardsmen to help with relief, including some from north-central Ohio, said Capt. Terrell Pruitt, commander of the 945th Engineering Co. based in Norwalk.

"We don't have a specific mission, but we know there's road clearance that's needed, and some commodity distribution that's needed," Pruitt said.

State officials say Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal requested the help.

Stacks of supplies were laid out at the unit's armory Wednesday morning. Most were basic necessities -- toilet paper and lights -- for the men and women headed to Louisiana at the end of the week.

Outside, a fleet of heavy equipment was being prepped to ship out.

Humvees and five-ton dump trucks traveled up and down West Main Street, gearing up to head south.

The first stop will be Columbus. After mobilizing there, the unit will head in the general direction of the Big Easy. Gov. Strickland has promised soldiers will arrive in Louisiana by the end of the week.

The 945th has not received a specific destination point, Pruitt said.

The unit's specialty is light and heavy equipment operation and construction projects.

"We are a horizontal construction company. What that means is we have equipment to do road construction, airfield repair -- really it's the construction you'd see at a regular construction site," said 1st Sgt. John Popelka. "There are units like ours, but they're few and far between. That's probably why we get called up as often as we do for domestic support because we have the equipment needed for snow removal, debris removal and things of that nature."

When disaster strikes, the 945th Engineering often gets the call.

The unit responds to floods, hurricanes and heavy snow, but is also equipped to handle civil service needs, civil unrest and even riots. Road repair and maintenance in unfriendly lands is also their forte.

Many times the call activating the unit comes out of the blue. The Guardsmen, who spend many weekends out of the year training, have to essentially put their lives on hold and report to duty.

"If you can imagine, our soldiers are having dinner with their significant others and enjoying their Labor Day weekends, they literally get a phone call saying, 'Come in the next morning.' That's what we're prepared for," Popelka said.

Popelka and Pruitt were both deployed to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. They saw the widespread devastation and the staggering amount of need that followed.

Come hurricane season, Popelka said his family and employer know the drill.

"I've already had that conversation with my employer, all the accounts are on bill pay, and my wife knows what to expect," Popelka said.

Gustav was not another Katrina. But billions of dollars in damage and hundreds of thousands of evacuees mean the 945th has its work cut out for it, Pruitt said.

"You still have folks who are displaced and who need food and water and shelter. The storm wasn't as violent as expected, but you still have people who need our care and support," he said.

The images they've seen flicker across the television set -- of water pounding the coastal shores and people hauling away their belongings -- make guardsmen such as Jeff Potts eager to get down to Louisiana and start dispensing humanitarian aid.

As squad leader of the 2nd platoon, Potts said his team was in charge of route clearance and sweeps for explosives along Iraq's roadways.

"We're helping out people in our own country this time," he said. "(In Iraq) we were helping out people who we had to learn about their culture."

While he likens the job ahead of him in Louisiana to the one he performed overseas, the threat of danger will be slightly different.

"I think it's basically the same thing except that was a combat zone and this is not -- hopefully," he said, with a laugh.

The unit is expected to help clear debris, repair infrastructure and distribute supplies -- thankfully, no improvised explosive device removal, Potts said.