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Oregon Guard soldiers stand by in Louisiana limbo.

Byline: Rebecca Nolan The Register-Guard

Local National Guard soldiers who were deployed to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina have been moved out of New Orleans and hope to be home soon.

However, their plans could be derailed if incoming Hurricane Rita, which was upgraded Wednesday to a Category 5 storm, turns away from Texas and toward the already ravaged Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi.

For now, the remaining 129 members of the Cottage Grove-based 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry Regiment, are hunkered down at an airfield in Alexandria, La., in the northern part of the state near Fort Polk. They packed up all of their gear and vehicles and moved to the airfield Tuesday, Capt. Peter Aguilar of Eugene said in a phone call from the base.

"We're sitting here in the heat, playing cards and waiting," Aguilar said Wednesday.

About half of the infantry regiment already has returned to Oregon, some of them students who need to resume their studies, or soldiers with other pressing needs at home.

The remaining soldiers are ready to board planes on short notice, Aguilar said.

When Hurricane Rita, whose wind speeds reached more than 170 mph on Wednesday, touches ground, the storm could hamper the remaining soldiers' homecoming plans two ways - first, by delaying air traffic out of the Gulf Coast area, and second, by requiring the soldiers to abandon plans to leave and instead respond to the storm's aftermath.

About 285 soldiers from three companies of the 162nd arrived in northeastern New Orleans two weeks ago and moved into buildings on the campus of the evacuated New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. From that base, they helped evacuate people stranded in their homes by floodwater, provided security to still-operating businesses, helped clear the roadways of debris, marked hazards such as downed lines and unsafe buildings, and notified authorities of the location of human remains.

The soldiers also did what they could to clean and repair the seminary campus. To thank them, the seminary threw a barbecue for the soldiers on Monday and gave them the Louisiana and U.S. flags that had flown over the school. "That was really nice," Aguilar said.

In all, nearly 2,000 Oregon National Guard troops responded to the storm-ravaged region. They gradually have been returning to their home state over the past two weeks.
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Title Annotation:Disasters; The 129 members remaining may be needed to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 22, 2005
Words:386
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