March 21, 2008 —
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Heavy snow may have been falling outside, but the men and women gathered inside a conference room here in mid-March had another kind of severe weather on their minds.
"Hurricanes are predictable; we know they're going to come," said the adjutant general of North Carolina, Army Maj. Gen. William Ingram. "We don't know if they're going to hit us or not, but we know we're going to have hurricanes every year. So I think we need to be ready for them."
Ingram, along with other adjutants general from states on the East and Gulf coasts and representatives from the National Guard Bureau, Coast Guard, Navy, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Homeland Security, North American Aerospace Defense Command, U.S. Army North, Air Force North and Canada Command were taking part in U.S. Northern Command's third Hurricane Preparation Conference.
Hurricane experts have already predicted 13 named storms in the Atlantic during the 2008 season, seven of them hurricanes and three of them major. The season begins June 1.
The goal of the two-day hurricane preparation conference, said USNORTHCOM deputy director, Army Lt. Gen. William Webster, was to facilitate discussion and strengthen relationships among the attendees.
"I would hope that when we leave here," Webster said, "we'd all feel a closer camaraderie and the ability to pick up the phone and call each other, night or day."
The conference was a valuable opportunity for attendees to exchange ideas, coordinate disaster planning and find out what other organizations are doing, said Vermont adjutant general, Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Dubie.
"There's a saying ... that you don't want to be exchanging business cards at the disaster site," Dubie said. "This is just one other way to develop relationships between NORTHCOM, between the adjutants general, between the National Guard Bureau, between the federal agencies, that may allow us to work better in a crisis. And, in a crisis, lives can be saved by minutes, by hours. That makes a conference like this all that much more important."
The adjutant general of Texas, Army Maj. Gen. Charles Rodriguez, has been to all three of USNORTHCOM's hurricane preparation conferences. Participants in the conference, he said, quickly come to understand how much they have in common.
"What this has done," Rodriguez said, "is allowed us to realize, 'Hey, we got a common problem.' And the problem is how to save life and limb and mitigate human suffering."
Coordinating disaster relief involves not just knowing who to call, but knowing what assets different agencies have to offer, and which organizations might not have everything they could possibly need.
"There are varying levels of needs in terms of capacity and capabilities," said Coast Guard Chief of Staff Vice Adm. Robert Papp. "We have to be very conscious of identifying those shortfalls in advance, so that perhaps we can help each other out."
Papp, as the Coast Guard's commander of the Atlantic Area, is responsible for the entire Atlantic and Gulf coasts or, as he puts it, "everything east of the Rockies." Attending the hurricane preparation conference is especially valuable to him, he said, because now he can put faces to the names of the adjutants general from the hurricane-prone East and Gulf coast states and territories.
"You can't, in the aftermath of a storm, be starting to get to know people," Papp said. "So thinking through these things, having a chance to discuss them, is very beneficial to all of us."
When a hurricane or other disaster strikes, it's important to know who's going to be at the other end of the phone, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Steven Foster, mobilization assistant to the NORAD commander.
"Now everybody's got names, they've got business cards, they've got phone numbers," Foster said. "And they also have a list of capabilities that that particular individual has to offer, which is a great benefit, especially as we're trying to reduce that timeline of request-to-response."
USNORTHCOM's hurricane preparation conference is an opportunity to compare state and federal disaster plans, find out what technology and capabilities exist, and address key issues, said Rhode Island adjutant general, Army Maj. Gen. Robert Bray.
"We just never, ever quite solve everything," Bray said, "and there are always ongoing issues or concerns. And so we get to throw them on the table in a collegiate environment and get some awareness ... and maybe make a little headway, a little inroad toward solving some of those."
U.S. Northern Command was established on Oct. 1, 2002, to anticipate and conduct homeland defense and civil support operations within the assigned area of responsibility to defend, protect, and secure the United States and its interests.