While federal and state emergency planners scramble to get more military relief to Gulf Coast communities stricken by Hurricane Katrina, a massive naval goodwill station has been cruising offshore, underused and waiting for a larger role in the effort.One of the great things about the men and women in the military is their willingness to follow orders.
The USS Bataan, a 844-foot ship designed to dispatch Marines in amphibious assaults, has helicopters, doctors, hospital beds, food and water. It also can make its own water, up to 100,000 gallons a day. And it just happened to be in the Gulf of Mexico when Katrina came roaring ashore.
The Bataan rode out the storm and then followed it toward shore, awaiting relief orders. Helicopter pilots flying from its deck were some of the first to begin plucking stranded New Orleans residents.
But now the Bataan's hospital facilities, including six operating rooms and beds for 600 patients, are empty. A good share of its 1,200 sailors could also go ashore to help with the relief effort, but they haven't been asked. The Bataan has been in the stricken region the longest of any military unit, but federal authorities have yet to fully utilize the ship. ***
"Could we do more?" said Capt. Nora Tyson, commander of the Bataan. "Sure. I've got sailors who could be on the beach plucking through garbage or distributing water and food and stuff. But I can't force myself on people.
"We're doing everything we can to contribute right now, and we're ready. If someone says you need to take on people, we're ready. If they say hospitals on the beach can't handle it ... if they need to send the overflow out here, we're ready. We've got lots of room." ***
"It was a disappointment," Fish said. "I figured we would be a big help in New Orleans. We've got electricity, and the police could have charged up their radios. We've got water, toilets. We've got food."
But one of the downsides is that sometimes they have to wait and wait and wait and wait for their civlian leaders to pull their heads out and issue some orders.