Day 6: Clearing a road to recovery

Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Spcs. Sean Willimas, left, and Alva Roberts, of the 1140th Engineer Battalion, cleared leaves and debris away from storm sewer drains as the unit continued its relief efforts Tuesday in New Orleans. (DON FRAZIER ~ dfrazier@

NEW ORLEANS -- The 1140th Engineer Battalion began its mission in earnest Tuesday, removing debris from residential roads so their paths will be clear when weary New Orleans residents decide to come home.

With floodwater slowly subsiding around them, the guardsmen began work at about 7 a.m.

Six different sections of about 25 troops each, mostly from Southeast Missouri, spread out over a poor section of east New Orleans near Lake Pontchartrain. With the smell of sewage hanging heavy in the air, the soldiers spent nearly 12 hours using front-end loaders to scoop up sludge. They used saws to cut apart downed trees and gloved hands to get the trash off the streets.

That's their mission for the next three weeks: Getting the streets clear from "curb to curb" while avoiding downed power lines, potentially hostile inhabitants and bacteria-laden water still flooding some streets in the area.

Sgt. Brian Cartwright of Cape Girardeau rolled a manhole cover back approximately 30 feet to its manhole Tuesday during the 1140th's first day of cleaning up neighborhood streets.

Despite the warm temperatures, back-breaking work and hard-to-take odor, it was difficult to find a soldier who would complain.

"I'm used to doing this kind of work," said Sgt. Kevin Pollock, who works as a landscaper in Cape Girardeau. "It is hot, but we just spent a year in Iraq, so this doesn't seem so bad. Plus, we're helping people. That makes it easier to take."

Staff Sgt. Kenny Brown of Jackson agreed.

Sgt. Kevin Pollock of Ironton, Mo., trimmed tree limbs in a neighborhood street in New Orleans.

"When you've been in the military 18 1/2 years, it's just a fact of life," he said. "The one thing we all could complain about is being away from family."

Pollack and his friend, Sgt. Brian Cartwright of Cape Girardeau, were members of the saw team going into yards where uprooted trees were blocking the road. Both were sweating heavily through their brown military T-shirts, but they tried to keep the mood light.

"We're not pruning," Cartwright teased as Pollock tried to delicately saw through a branch. "We're not going for fung shui. Just get the branch down."

The troops again ran into several abandoned dogs -- including one beautiful blue-eyed pit bull -- they took time to feed and water. They also phoned the organization charged with rescuing left-behind pets.

The homes in the neighborhood were all apparently empty, cleared out by Army infantry soldiers. Dogs barked from inside some of the homes, but the 1140th had clear orders not to enter houses.

Meanwhile, an attached unit -- the 880th Engineer Company of Dexter -- scouted other areas, performing reconnaissance missions to see how much equipment and manpower would be needed in the coming days.

That group made its way along Interstate 10 and stopped on a bridge overlooking Crowder Boulevard. Surveying the damage below, they saw more of the same -- flooded streets, buildings reduced to rubble and mounds and mounds of trash.

"This is the worst devastation I've ever seen," said Sgt. Ron Palmer of Bernie, Mo. "It's worse than Baghdad. I was in Iraq for 14 months and traveled nearly 2 million miles and nothing was as bad as this."

The battalion chaplain, Capt. Darren King, was also along for the recon mission. He performs Protestant services for the troops, while a priest is brought in for Catholics. King also performs other duties, such as counseling and delivering Red Cross messages. But the one he considers most valuable is praying for the men and women who are serving.

He prays several times a day, asking God to watch over them, to not let them get too stressed about their work and to protect their families. He asks that the folks back home, if they are so inclined, say a prayer as well.

"These guys can use all the prayer they can get," he said.

Battalion commander Lt. Col Bob Jones sees it a bit differently. He agrees that the soldiers should be in the thoughts of those back home. "But," he said, "the people who really need prayer are the good folks of Louisiana."

Jones said the work will go on. There's plenty of it. The 1140th will be here for 30 days after their activation date of Sept. 6. He doesn't expect them to be extended.

"Things are going well," Jones said. "As well as could be expected."

Jones looked out over the New Orleans skyline.

"But we've got a lot left to do," he said. "A lot."

335-6611, extension 137

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