Arkansas guardsmen file back from Texas; electric linemen, wildlife officers respond to Florida disaster

The 1,500 men and women of the Arkansas National Guard who deployed to southeast Texas a week-and-a-half ago began returning to the Natural State over the weekend.

About 500 troops returned Sunday, and 500 more are expected home in the next two days, winding down the state Guard's largest domestic mobilization since Hurricane Katrina.

With the exception of one specialized 14-member team, Guard officials hope to completely pull out of Texas by Sept. 21, according to Guard spokesman Maj. Will Phillips.

As the soldiers and airmen return, the prospect of being called back to the Gulf Coast looms after Hurricane Irma tore through much of Florida over the weekend.

As of Monday evening, Florida hadn't requested the Arkansas Guard's help, but "that could change in a moment's notice," Phillips said.

Other state agencies, businesses and volunteer groups have already mobilized to the Sunshine State to assist in relief efforts.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission dispatched 28 wildlife officers to Florida over the weekend.

Electric utility Entergy sent approximately 100 Arkansas workers to help restore power in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott on Monday estimated that 66 percent of the state was without power.

Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas also deployed 145 linemen to Florida and South Carolina to help restore power.

Both Game and Fish Commission and Entergy employees recently returned from Texas after assisting recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Some of the Game and Fish officers sent to Florida had also responded to Texas' disaster 13 days ago.

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"Unfortunately, our officers have received firsthand experience on what to do and ways to help," said Col Greg Rae, head of the commission's enforcement division. "I'm sure if the roles were reversed, Florida would be one of the first states to help Arkansas deal with a natural disaster."

Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, killing 70 and unleashing widespread flooding from a reported 50 inches of rain.

Hurricane Irma began making its way up the Florida coast on Sunday, killing five in Florida, two in Georgia and one in South Carolina as of late Monday. As Irma moved through the Caribbean late last week, it killed at least 34.

Arkansas' responses to Texas and Florida stem from mutual assistance agreements that exist between states. Arkansas has an agreement in place with Texas, Louisiana and several other nearby states to offer National Guard support when disasters occur.

In the Game and Fish Commission's case, its expertise was requested by the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management at the behest of Florida officials who had contacted the Emergency Department to request assistance.

Entergy, for its part, has agreements in place with other utilities; its Arkansas crews left Sunday morning for Florida. The 125 workers it sent to Texas returned to Arkansas late last week, said spokesman Kerri Case.

Duane Highley, president and CEO of Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, said that mutual assistance is a "key aspect" of cooperatives.

Kevin Riddle, who organizes disaster responses for the Arkansas co-op, said that more crews may be needed after the damage is assessed.

Before leaving Texas, soldiers from the Arkansas National Guard's 875th Engineer Battalion received a firsthand thank you from Brig. Gen. Tracy Norris, deputy adjutant general of the Texas Military Department.

"I appreciate that you were ready," Norris said, according to a Guard news release. "I can't promise in the future we won't call you again."

The battalion spent the past week planning and processing in Texas before it was determined its help was no longer needed.

Another group of Arkansas guardsmen -- Task Force Aleutian -- spent Monday in Lumberton, Texas, assessing damage, moving debris and providing food and water.

Other guardsmen have conducted reconnaissance, safety patrols and stranded-animal rescues.

The last group to leave Texas will likely be a 14-member hazardous material survey crew from the 61st Civil Support Team. The survey team has been working to identify any chemical hazards left by the flood.

It wasn't clear Monday when they would be cleared to return.

"Because of their specific skill set, they'll probably be needed longer," Phillips said.

A Section on 09/12/2017

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