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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

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Texas Army National Guard mobilizes in Houston


Exercise science senior Nick Rojas said Hurricane Harvey is the third natural disaster he’s responded to since joining the Texas Army National Guard in 2014. | Courtesy of Nick Rojas

Nearly 2,000 members of the Texas Army National Guard, including at least one UH student, have mobilized since Thursday in preparation for Harvey, the tropical storm that made landfall along the Texas coast Friday evening as a Category 4 hurricane.

Cadet Nick Rojas, an exercise science senior and ROTC member at UH, was one of 1,200 soldiers deployed Thursday. Rojas joined the Texas Army National Guard in 2014, and said Hurricane Harvey marks his third disaster relief deployment.

“Right now, we’re still in the preparation phase; we’re nowhere near recovery,” Rojas said. “We’re just making sure we have everything we need so that as soon as we get the call to go to wherever, we are 100 percent ready.”

This phase, referred to as staging, involves making sure all personnel, vehicles and equipment needed for action are ready to go, Rojas said. Forces activated for Harvey were still awaiting direction from the state as of Saturday evening.

“Before we knew that the storm was so big, there was already a plan to mobilize about 200 soldiers,” said Maj. Randy Stillinger, the public affairs officer for the 36th infantry division of the Texas Army National Guard.

Saturday morning, Stillinger said up to 700 additional troops were on standby, ready to be mobilized.

The call to volunteer usually follows anywhere from a few hours to a few days after a state of disaster declaration by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for affected counties, Rojas said.

“We’ll hear about the storm coming through, and this is just part of the job,” Rojas said. “We’ll get a call, and they’ll say ‘Hey, are you available? Is it safe for you to come out and help?’”

After volunteers are notified, Rojas said, they meet at locations throughout the state to form ground transportation companies, where they prepare necessary equipment and await further direction from the state.

“That’s basically how notice works,” Rojas said. “If you’re available and it’s safe for you to come in, they’ll say ‘All right. Report here at this time,’ and from there we kind of move into what we’re doing now — that planning and staging process.”

Rojas said he believes deployments for the storm reached nearly 2,000 by Saturday evening. At approximately 4:10 p.m. Sunday, the Texas Military Department tweeted that the National Guard will be increasing active troops to 3,000.

“We support the state and local authorities — local fire departments, local police departments, things like that,” Rojas said. “So, we’re basically just like a second set of hands to them, helping them complete their jobs and getting into areas where they normally wouldn’t be able to get into.”

In addition to providing additional manpower, Stillinger said the Texas Army National Guard brings high-wheeled vehicles to assist in rescuing residents from severely flooded areas.

Stillinger said they also have the power to set up shelters for evacuees.

“I think the last count was 200 people that were in shelters, and I expect that number to increase once this is over,” Stillinger said.

While Rojas said his two previous disaster relief missions lasted from three to eight days, the National Guard will remain in the affected areas of the Texas coast to render aid as long as necessary.

“We’ll stay on duty as long as we’re needed,” Stillinger said. “We’re citizen soldiers with the Army National Guard, so most of us have civilian jobs, including myself. I’ve left my job temporarily to go serve our state, and it’s a complete honor to be able to be there.”

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