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Florida using few available National Guard troops for oil spill

WASHINGTON — Two months after President Barack Obama authorized 2,500 National Guard troops in Florida to combat the oil disaster, only 100 are being used.

The lack of requests for the troops has frustrated the White House, which has come under withering criticism about its response to the crisis.

"Everything is in place to put troops on the target," says Lt. Col. Ron Tittle, director of public affairs for the Florida National Guard. "If we get the mission we'll be there."

But the guard has not received many missions. Neither Escambia nor Okaloosa counties, among the hardest hit, has requested any troops.

"Certainly at this point, everything has been manageable," says Sonya Daniel, public information manager for Escambia County. "I'm not familiar where we would use the National Guard."

The largest contingent of troops being used are patrolling the beaches of Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties for crude oil.

Bay County is happy to have the help. "Certainly the more bodies we have on the beach, the better," said county spokeswoman Valerie Lovett. "We want to take advantage of all the resources we have available to us, and I think that has been a good move on our part."

Escambia County beach patrols are being handled by subcontractors with engineering and environmental expertise, Daniel said.

The National Guard also has engineers, and officials said training the troops to patrol the beaches of Bay County took only two days. Because the National Guard was authorized by the president, the federal government pays for everything, although Little said BP will eventually pay the bill.

Daniel said Escambia County awarded the contracts before the president authorized the National Guard use. The troops were authorized on May 3. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the contracting fees should be filed for reimbursement with BP.

In Okaloosa County, Chief of Emergency Management Randy McDaniel said that plenty of people are patrolling the beaches, including BP cleanup crews, county beach safety personnel and volunteers.

Okaloosa made national news when the county commission voted unanimously that its emergency managers had the ability to overrule federal emergency managers.

Prominent Republican politicians like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. George LeMieux and Senate hopeful Marco Rubio have sharply criticized Obama's handling of the gulf crisis. Gov. Charlie Crist has been less critical.

Obama seemed to jab back at his GOP critics in a June 15 Oval Office address when he urged gulf-state governors to activate the troops as soon as possible.

Escambia and Okaloosa counties have a National Guard liaison advising them on the abilities of the troops, and both counties indicated that they are aware that they could request National Guard troops.

"We won't just show up unless there's a mission," said Tittle.

Florida using few available National Guard troops for oil spill 07/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 10:12am]
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