Hurricane Katrina-hit U.S. Navy battalion helps quake victims in Pakistan
MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan -- U.S. Navy equipment operator Craig Ries steered his 15-ton truck through this earthquake-ravaged city and recalled the destruction of a disaster thousands of miles away -- Hurricane Katrina.
The storm swept away the two-story apartment complex in Mississippi where he lived in with his wife and two children.
"It's a bittersweet feeling being here," said Ries, a 25-year-old petty officer third class. "We lost everything. I'd like to be at home, but the people really need us here."
Like Ries, many other members of the 74th Construction Battalion, based in Gulfport, Miss., lost their homes, cars or other property in the hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast.
The battalion, known as Seabees, were deployed in Okinawa, Japan, in June, and 110 members came to Pakistan last month to join the U.S. Army's 212th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Muzaffarabad.
Seabees are members of the Navy's Civil Engineer Corps, responsible for relief work such as building water wells and schools, as well as making improvements to military installations.
Their presence in Pakistan is part of a sweeping U.S. effort to provide relief help to the country, a major ally in the war on terror that was devastated by the Oct. 8 earthquake. The quake killed some 80,000 people and has left millions homeless, with winter just weeks away.
"This is your chance to go out there and help these people," said Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Kielan, the commander of the Seabees unit, as they set off Sunday to clear a flattened primary school on the northern edge of the city.
The convoy was greeted by waving crowds as it wound through the narrow, bustling streets of the devastated city, which is slowly taking on a semblance of normality, with hawkers peddling food, spices, shoes and watches amid the ruins.
The school lay in a 3-foot-high heap, which local officials wanted flattened so they could rebuild.
Pakistani army Lt. Ali Akbar, who coordinated the work at the school site, welcomed the Seabees but grew serious when he heard about their losses to Katrina.
"This is very sad and upsetting, and it's really good of them to come all this way to help our people in our need," Akbar said.
Navy construction engineers plan to clear the rubble of 29 schools and provide UNICEF with tents and latrines for temporary schools in the region.
In a few days, they also plan to open up fueling points at Muzaffarabad airfield to shorten the refueling stops of rescue and aid helicopters that now need to fly down to Islamabad, 56 miles southeast of this city, to refuel.
The Seabees are also helping set up a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH camp, in Muzaffarabad, and their presence has been much appreciated by the staff.
"Epic," said Spc. Hall Zachary, after his first shower for a week in a tent erected by the Seabees. "I could hear a choir of angels singing in that shower."