The National Guard is poised to help states hit by Hurricane Irene.
Maj. Gen. David Harris, director of operations for the Arlington, Va.-based National Guard Bureau, told The Associated Press on Saturday that at least 7,500 Guard troops either have been pre-positioned in key regions or have been told to prepare to deploy to provide help to states affected by the storm this weekend.
"Typically when a hurricane like this goes through, it's several hours after it passes through before they get a chance to get out and survey the damage," Harris said. "If there are things that are beyond the state's capability, that's when we'll get those requests."
The hurricane, with an enormous 500-mile wingspan, knocked out power and piers in North Carolina and hammered Virginia with strong winds as it crept up the coast Saturday. It stirred up 7-foot waves, and forecasters warned of storm-surge danger on the coasts of Virginia and Delaware, along the Jersey Shore and in New York Harbor and Long Island Sound.
In northern Virginia, at the National Guard Bureau's coordination center, military officials tracked the storm on an array of screens three stories below ground, and they organized massive Army and Air Guard assistance squads, called packages, that will be ready to head to the coastal states over the next day or two.
Harris said that the National Guard has three ground packages of about 2,000 guardsmen each and four aviation packages spread up and down the Eastern Seaboard, with personnel arriving from states including Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee and helicopters from Florida, Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio.
The air packages include 12 to 20 helicopters and crews.
At Fort Indiantown Gap in central Pennsylvania, the Air National Guard was bringing in helicopters to assist in operations after Irene passes. Eighteen aircraft from across the region will be ready to assist as needed, Lt. Col. Tom Crosson said.
Two of the air packages were heading to Rome, N.Y., where they could be ready to quickly get to New York City, Long Island or other shore areas, to transport supplies or provide search and rescue assistance. Aircraft available across the country include helicopters and cargo planes.
Harris said officials are particularly concerned about the potential for flooding in New York on Sunday and Monday.
The ground packages include more than 2,000 soldiers each, with medical personnel, aid stations, engineering units, military police, bulldozers, trucks, communications equipment and other logistical supplies.
As of late afternoon Saturday, only a few requests were coming in from the eastern states, including one from New Jersey for additional communications equipment to allow police officers, firefighters and other emergency personnel to operate on one compatible system.
Harris said troops are available for everything from sandbagging to medical aid and debris removal, although they won't be working on infrastructure.
"We're not in the business of putting up power lines," Harris said, "but pretty much everything else is within our purview."
Baldor reported from Washington.