Obama promises 17,000 National Guard troops for Gulf oil clean-up, but only 1,600 activated so far

Paul Conner Executive Editor
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President Obama announced Tuesday night that he has authorized 17,000 National Guard troops to help deal with the Gulf oil spill, but only 1,600 troops have been activated so far, according to state and guard officials.

Louisiana has activated 1,117 troops and airmen, the most of the four states affected by the spill. Alabama has activated 441 guardsmen. Mississippi has activated 56, and Florida 26, according to Major Tom Crosson, spokesman for the National Guard.

The trouble is that state and local officials are still assessing how best to use the troops available to them. In Florida, for example, mission requests are sent to the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. If a particular mission suits the guard, they are asked to carry it out.

So far, the missions have not specifically required deploying large numbers of guardsmen. National Guard officials are ready, waiting and planning for potential missions — but not acting on the scale that the president has discussed.

“While there is a challenge to determine which mission we may be called for, we continue to plan for potential missions to ensure we have the right skill sets,” said Lt. Col. Ron Tittle, director of public affairs with the Florida Guard. “Regardless, we rise to the challenge.”

Louisiana and Alabama have borne the brunt of the effects of the oil spill, while Mississippi and Florida have seen less oil wash up on shore. Mississippi has the authority to activate up to 6,000 troops if the need arises, but only 56 have been deployed.

“We just don’t have a need for them right now,” said Dan Turner, spokesman for Miss. Gov. Haley Barbour.

Part of the issue is that the guard is a force on the ground, and the problem — at least in Mississippi — is at sea. Even still, the guard has been useful in the Gulf states.

Gov. Bobby Jindal mobilized guard troops Monday to begin building barrier walls nine miles offshore. Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters manned by guard airmen have been dropping 7,000 pounds of sandbags into the ocean.

In Alabama, guardsmen have set up “hesko barriers” around Dauphin Island. The barriers are set up on the shoreline and allow water to get through, but not oil. The oil can then be dealt with in a safe manner. They have also been helping victims process claims to BP.

“They have gone above and beyond expectations,” said Todd Stacy, spokesman for Ala. Gov. Bob Riley. “This is a man-made problem, not a natural disaster, so we’re all going through this for the first time.”

Tittle declined to speculate on whether the number of troops activated would increase to match the president’s authorization. Guard officials are also trying to balance their role in the disaster containment effort with the public’s role.

“Can a volunteer or someone without a job do the same thing that a Guardsman would be doing?  We have unique sets that we can and will perform,” Tittle told the Daily Caller.

“No doubt the missions will come our way and we’ll be there working alongside our fellow Floridians in support of our State Emergency Response Team. This team is what has made Florida successful during our many previous hurricanes,” Tittle said.

The Department of Defense has provided federal funding for 2,500 Florida National Guard troops. The troops would be under the command of Gov. Charlie Crist. Florida has over 8,000 troops available in total.

In Florida, troops are being used in a variety of situations. Nine troops have been deployed with the State Emergency Operations Center for planning and military support. Seven troops are in Pensacola, Fla., three with a C-23 airplane and four with “dragoon” operations, which means that they are receiving aircraft signals of oil locations.

Authorities maintain that BP will be held accountable to reimburse the federal government for the cost of mobilizing the troops.