Sunday, April 12, 2009

National Guard Prepares for 2009 Hurricane Season

By Army Staff Sgt. Jon Soucy, Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., - With the start of hurricane season only a few months away, the National Guard is busy preparing to respond if such a storm should make landfall, senior Army officials said during an Army bloggers roundtable yesterday (April 9).

Those preparations include a large-scale command post exercise scheduled for April 14-15 at Fort Belvoir, Va.

"It's an exercise that will have over 150 participants from all the inter-agencies, all the other portions of the Army, to include many of the National Guard [leaders in] states that are affected by hurricanes," said Army Maj. Gen. John Basilica Jr., commander of Operational Command Post 1, Army North, which oversees domestic operations.

"We do that rehearsal of concept to try and synchronize all of our collective efforts," the general explained. "It is a complex operation, and then we learn from them and finalize our plans leading up to the hurricane season."

For the states, hurricane season is just another contingency to plan for each year.

"About five years ago, we started meeting as a region in the southeast to discuss our shortfalls for units that were activating and mobilizing to go overseas as well as units coming back," said Army Col. Bill Beiswenger, the joint operations officer for the Florida National Guard. "For those shortfalls that we couldn't meet within our respective states, we went ahead and worked out preliminary EMACs — Emergency Management Agreement Compacts — between the states that we could bring in forces rapidly."

And that planning conference has grown, Beiswenger said.

"This year, we went ahead and took it one step further," he said. "We had 27 states represented at the conference. It was a three-day long conference, and we went through all our states' worst-case scenarios, and then we discussed our shortfalls and what assets we could provide across state lines as necessary."

For those in the Florida National Guard, those response plans have been refined over the years.

"We probably get more chance than anyone to exercise hurricane operations," Beiswenger said. "Since 1992, with Hurricane Andrew, the Florida National Guard has been activated 70 times [for state missions]. So, Florida gets a lot of chance to go ahead and rehearse and work actual operations."

That means that should a hurricane make landfall and cause damage, the response is almost second-nature for those in the Florida National Guard. It also means that training for such an occurrence is almost a year-round event.

"The minute hurricane season ends, we start our training program," Beiswenger said. "And we go through a multitude of training, everything from search and rescue to training our liaison officers that we put out in the county emergency operations centers. In turn, when we get ready for hurricane season, we're able to come together."

That allows for a seamless ability to get in where help is needed, Beiswenger said, adding that experience from previous storms has taught the Guardsmen a few lessons.

"We feel that with our experience, the citizens are going to need certain things," Beiswenger said. "They're going to need food, water and ice. They're going to need search and rescue, so we go in there, and our first forces in there are going to be able to go ahead and start fulfilling that."

That also means working hand-in-hand with state and local officials.

"During Katrina, Florida provided almost 7,000 folks up to Mississippi to assist in the four southernmost counties up there," Beiswenger said. "About 700 to 900 were National Guard; the rest was made up of first responders from across the state of Florida."

Forecasters are predicting 2009 to be an "above average" year for hurricanes, and the Guard will be ready to respond to those storms, Beiswenger said.

"We're all part of one team out there, and our main mission out there is to protect the life and property of our citizens," he said. "We're prepared to step up to the plate as needed throughout the year."