The Arkansas National Guard over the next few days will deploy an additional 1,500 soldiers and airmen to south Texas to aid hurricane relief efforts.
The 1,500 will join a group of about 30 Arkansas National Guardsmen already on the ground there, marking the state Guard's largest domestic mobilization since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Capt. Charles Christianson, a Guard helicopter pilot from Russellville, deployed to Sugar Land, Texas, on Tuesday. He has led a team of two helicopters that have conducted search-and-rescue missions, supply drops and general support.
"It's worse than I expected," he said in a Friday phone interview from Texas. "But everyone here has been really upbeat given the disaster."
Arkansas is part of a large contingent of states, reaching as far as Alaska, that have sent their citizen soldiers to help Houston and the surrounding areas recover as floodwaters recede in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which first made landfall on Aug. 25.
The storm has affected millions along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, leaving many without drinking water or livable homes.
The storm's death toll has steadily climbed over the past week. On Thursday afternoon, it reached 39.
The 1,500 Arkansas National Guardsmen -- members of both the Army and Air Guards -- deploying this weekend will help any way they can, including search and rescues, traffic control and security patrols, said Maj. Will Phillips, a Guard spokesman.
"That'll free up first responders and local law enforcement to focus on other areas," he said Friday.
The guardsmen also are taking power generators and a variety of vehicles -- including wreckers, maintenance trucks, fuelers, water trailers and command vehicles -- to "optimize their ability to self-sustain, [and] therefore lend more assistance to Texas," Phillips said.
The state Guard already has two five-soldier helicopter crews and a 14-member hazardous-material survey team in Texas.
The state has an agreement in place with Louisiana, Texas and several other surrounding states to offer Guard support in disaster scenarios. It's possible Texas Gov. Greg Abbott could request additional assistance in the coming weeks.
In 2005, the Arkansas Guard sent about 3,000 troops to the Gulf Coast to assist Hurricane Katrina recovery, said Spc. Stephen Wright, a Guard public affairs specialist.
This weekend's deployment will include part-time guardsmen from across Arkansas, and it could extend up to 30 days, according to news release from Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
"We want to be sure to say a prayer for their families and thank businesses for allowing their employees to leave and do this job," Phillips said.
The Arkansas soldiers and airmen will arrive at an area where procedures have become nontraditional at times in the days since the storm hit. Some groups of Texas National Guard soldiers in Houston have relied on cellphones, and in some cases social media, to communicate as radio communication has become difficult across the sprawling Texas city.
One unit of Texas National Guardsmen from San Antonio got lost during a security patrol as darkness fell, and one soldier used Snapchat to contact help and guide the group back to its command post, according to a Washington Post report.
State Guard members will also join a steady group of volunteers from religious organizations and nonprofits in Arkansas who have journeyed to the coast to help flood and hurricane victims recover.
Rogers-based Sheep Dog Impact Assistance dispatched volunteer teams to Houston, Beaumont and Rockport, Texas, where they used boats to rescue or assist 170 residents, "mucked out" 13 homes, and delivered 300 cases of water and 800 pounds of food and medical supplies, according to a news release.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital systems in Little Rock and Fayetteville have sent groups of nurses and medical support staff members to Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston.
The Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System has also been manning the Houston VA's call center, taking more than 15,000 calls since Aug. 25, spokesman Chris Durney said.
Additionally, Durney said the hospital system has pre-staged a patient reception area at TAC Air, a general aviation service center at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field in Little Rock, although it hasn't yet been activated.
Christianson, the helicopter pilot, said Texans have been extremely appreciative of all the help, adding that area residents have taken "more food than we could ever eat" to the Sugar Land air base. This is the first time Christianson has deployed for a natural disaster, but he has deployed overseas to Kuwait and Iraq.
"It's been very rewarding to know we're helping our own people in their time of need," he said.
Metro on 09/02/2017