Soldiers of the 1140th knock on doors, clear debris in St. Lou

Saturday, July 22, 2006

On their first full day of relief work in St. Louis, 220 National Guard troops from the 1140th Engineer Battalion of Cape Girardeau were knocking on doors and clearing debris to help those affected by Wednesday night's storm. About 480,000 people in the St. Louis area remained without power Friday.

Soldiers reported that a morning rain had lowered temperatures to a relatively mild 81 degrees by the afternoon. However, the rain also brought new power outages. Ameren Corp. said it could be Tuesday or Wednesday before all power is restored. The utility said the outage is the worst in the city's history.

Also on Friday, President Bush approved the state's request for an expedited disaster declaration. Under the declaration, the president mobilized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help coordinate disaster relief efforts and provide federal funding for debris removal and other emergency needs.

'Taking decent care of each other'

Guardsmen said virtually no one in the city's neighborhoods was in need of major assistance.

"They've been going door to door in the affected areas ringing doorbells and asking whether there are elderly people who are not accounted for," said Lt. Steve Toft of the 1140th. "For the most part, people are taking decent care of each other. Those that are alone and in need of assistance, we encouraged them to go stay with a relative or someone with electricity."

The units began at fire stations and then fanned out. Troops were instructed to transport those suffering from the heat to one of the 14 cooling centers in the city of St. Louis or 38 cooling centers in the county. Spokesman Spc. Mitchell Kester said he had not heard of any civilian needing transportation in a Guard vehicle as of 5 p.m.

When the call came in Thursday, the 1140th was undergoing its annual two weeks of training, which meant they were able to mobilize quickly. Soldiers said the assignment wasn't an inconvenience.

"We were more than happy to come up here. It was the sixth day of our training, and any time you're called to assist people in your home state, you jump at the chance to do it," said Pvt. Jason Mitchell of Crystal City, a member of the 1138th Engineer Battalion.

Mitchell said the accommodations for soldiers at the Festus Armory are spartan, but he wouldn't have it any other way. "It's exactly what I'd expect, and we've got everything we need. Cots, air conditioning, showers; we're staying cool when we're indoors. ... I'm loving every minute of it."

Mitchell said he was part of a 25-man "health and welfare" team sent to areas around Washington Avenue, Enright Avenue, and the 4300 to 4500 blocks of Delmar Boulevard Friday morning. Troops distributed water, and firefighters and EMTs were also present if needed.

Much of the 1140th arrived Thursday at about 8 p.m.; some 75 soldiers were promptly sent to make rounds in city neighborhoods until past 11 p.m.

Attachments to the 1140th include the 1438th Engineer Multi-role Bridge Company of Rolla and Warrenton, 1138th Engineer Battalion of Farmington and Fredericktown, the 220th Engineer Company of Festus, and the 880th Haul Team of Perryville.

Friday afternoon, soldiers began clearing debris. The labor was divided with some operating skid loaders, chain saws and dump trucks.

Sgt. Eric Richardet of Perryville was on the chain-saw crew working in the Walnut Park neighborhood. He said all the roads in his area were cleared so any route was passable by at least one car. He said the assignment has not been strenuous and gives him a sense of accomplishment.

"We're just glad to be here and be helping out local people. These assignments are why we enjoy being part of the National Guard," Richardet said.

Most soldiers said their time deployed to the Gulf Coast helping with the Hurricane Katrina cleanup has proved invaluable.

"Because of that, we've all seen worse," Toft said. "Especially with the debris removal, that's where it's really helped. At Katrina, we didn't deal with people too much, but we got a lot of experience with the equipment we're using."

Toft said the unit's annual training is scheduled to last until July 29 and that deployment could last until that date.

"We haven't been given a timetable," he said. "There's probably a week's worth of work if they need us to stay."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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