USNORTHCOM, National Guard and interagency planners prepare for 2009 hurricane season

By Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill National Guard Bureau


HILTON HEAD, S.C. (2/19/09) – One team, one fight is the mantra for local, state and federal leaders preparing for a 2009 hurricane season that forecasters say could include nine major storms.

“If that forecast is even close to being accurate, the timing of this [workshop] is vital to us being ready,” said Gen. Craig McKinley, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, at a hurricane planning workshop here today. “The American public expects this team to pull together to do the job right.”

For the first time, this annual NGB workshop was co-sponsored by U.S. Northern Command and attended by key leaders from partner agencies.

National Guard leaders from 11 hurricane states have met annually for several years to coordinate plans and exchange ideas for the upcoming storm season.

This year was the first time they were joined by so many federal and state partners – a team drawn from 27 states, five major commands, three territories and the District of Columbia.

“This is an historic event,” said Maj. Gen. Stanhope Spears, the adjutant general of the South Carolina National Guard, which hosted the workshop.

McKinley sat side-by-side with Gen. Gene Renuart, the commander of NORTHCOM. Bob Powers, the acting assistant administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster operations, sat nearby, as did leaders from U.S. Army North, 1st Air Force, the Department of Homeland Security and other military and federal agencies that would team up in the aftermath of a storm.

“This is the first of what I think will be many in the future: joint hurricane planning workshops,” Renuart said. “It gives us an opportunity to pull together the National Guard Bureau and U.S. Northern Command as we prepare. It gives us a chance to pull together not only the [Department of Defense] but the civilian responders.”

The hurricane workshop came just three weeks after the latest batch of National Guard leaders graduated from a Joint Task Force Commander Course taught at NORTHCOM in Colorado Springs, Colo., to prepare for a unified response to just such a domestic crisis as a major hurricane.

“For us to work jointly to achieve the desired results of being prepared to assist the citizens of the United States, in this case with natural disasters, that’s what we’re being paid to do,” McKinley said.

Joint local and regional planning conferences have been held in the past, Renuart said.

“But we learned after Katrina that the only way to ensure that you don’t repeat those lessons is to pull together all of the players and to pre-plan the kinds of responses that’ll be necessary,” Renuart said. “Clearly the governors, the state emergency managers, the adjutants general will have the lead … but bringing in the federal partners … allows us to integrate our efforts ahead of time so that the response can be more effective and certainly more timely.”

McKinley said, “You don’t want to exchange business cards at the scene of a disaster. You want to know your counterparts well before that disaster, so you have the connectedness to work the interagency process that is vital to a successful operation.”

This South Carolina barrier island, which hosts more than 2.4 million visitors each year, is on the front lines in a hurricane state among almost a dozen states prone to the potentially deadly and damaging storms.

Hurricane planners meeting here this week wore Army and Air National Guard, regular Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force and Coast Guard uniforms. But they said Hilton Head’s residents do not care how responders are dressed or what agency they are from – they just want an efficient, unified response to save lives and property after a storm.

Workshop attendees strengthened existing relationships, discussed force package planning for supported and supporting states and heard about existing hurricane response capabilities and gaps to be fixed.

Enlisted leaders and adjutants general broke off to discuss preparedness at all levels of the chain of command.

All incidents are local, planners say, meaning it all starts with a 911 call to a local agency and local responders are the first in the breach.

In the event of a major hurricane, that response is quickly supplemented with additional state and federal resources, such as the 460,000-strong National Guard and NORTHCOM working in support of FEMA.

The Department of Defense assists FEMA and other federal agencies when requested and approved by the president or the secretary of defense.

“FEMA is a small agency,” Powers said. “We do not go in and provide direct FEMA support for most of the things that we do. Most of the work that the federal government provides comes from across all federal agencies. The Department of Defense and the National Guard Bureau are two very, very key players.”

One team, one fight means, in part, a timely and efficient response when needed, Powers said.

“This is a large step in our maturation process,” Powers said. “It’s the first time that we’ve brought together such a large group from across the National Guard, from across the NORTHCOM resources.”

No other organization has the National Guard’s combination of size, skills, training and experience, dispersion across states, command and communications infrastructure, and the legal flexibility to support civil authorities at a moment’s notice, leaders say.

The National Guard is the nation’s first military responder, working with state emergency management divisions, emergency operations centers and civilian agencies and authorities to respond to natural disasters and other major incidents as required in accordance with each state’s emergency response plan.

But the National Guard also is not a panacea, and NORTHCOM and other agencies supply additional capabilities and capacity.

NORTHCOM, for example, can draw upon thousands of active-duty military forces from throughout the nation.

“Each have unique capabilities,” Renuart said, “but some of the … tools that NORTHCOM brings would be in the areas, for example, of pre-incident aeromedical evacuation … post-incident airlift support, of added search and rescue capabilities, of incident assessment capabilities.”

When a state and the emergency management assistance compact have exceeded their capacity, the Department of Defense can be helpful, Renuart said.

After an interstate highway bridge collapsed in Minnesota, DoD salvage divers responded. “That capability only exists in one place,” Renuart said.

Each state has unique capabilities and needs, Renuart noted, and it’s important to know what those are ahead of a disaster.

After Hurricane Katrina, the National Guard sent about 50,000 Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen from every state and territory to Louisiana and Mississippi.

Today, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact between states is a key tool enabling the Guard to deploy and respond as needed from anywhere in the nation to anywhere in need.

Although the workshop focused on hurricanes, much of the discussion also applied to other incidents such as earthquakes, wildfires or terrorism, planners said.

“The customer is our families, our communities, our homes,” Renuart said. “It is no-fail. Trust me, my mom will call me if her house is being threatened and we’re not out there to help. There is no more important mission than responding when Mother Nature whips up on us.”

The workshop ends Friday.