Aug. 31, 2011 —
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas - Army North’s headquarters sprang into action Aug. 25 as Hurricane Irene closed in on the eastern coast of the United States. The command’s operations center in the historic Quadrangle became a hub of activity as the Soldiers, along with their civilian partners, managed the mountain of information on the track of the storm.
This kicked off a flurry of activity as the command commenced issuing instructions to land-based forces preparing to respond in anticipation of requests for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency – the overall lead for the federal response effort for Hurricane Irene.
“It's ironic that we were in the middle of a major disaster response training exercise in Indiana at the time of the hurricane,” said Lt. Gen. Guy Swan III, commanding general, U.S. Army North and Fort Sam Houston. “However, we were able to reach out and quickly move our experts in Indiana and get them to where they were needed most – providing aid to our fellow Americans during their time of need.”
The onset of the hurricane coincided with Vibrant Response 12, a U.S. Northern Command field training exercise conducted by U.S. Army North that kicked off Aug. 18 at Camp Atterbury, the Muscatatuck Urban Training Complex, and other venues in Indiana. The exercise, which was in its final stages, focused on one of the most dangerous scenarios – responding to a nuclear attack.
Elements from Army North’s Contingency Command Post and the 167th Theater Sustainment Command, which is based out of Fort McClellan, Ala., quickly moved from the exercise in Indiana to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey to receive federal troops responding to the disaster.
Army North quickly deployed nine of its 10 Defense Coordinating Elements, each led by a defense coordinating officer, to join with the FEMA Incident Management Teams across the northeastern U.S. The command also sent elements from the exercise in Indiana to augment the DCEs, which were fanned out from North Carolina, New York and Massachusetts, to FEMA's National Response Coordination Center in Washington D.C.
“The direction of the FEMA administrator, Craig Fugate, was for all agencies to lean forward and be ready,” said Bill Donaher, a plans and operations officer with Army North’s Region I DCE, about the advance preparation and the whole of the government effort. “Clearly they were – from the general population to the local governments and state governments and up to the federal partners.”
The Army North military disaster response experts were sent to advise both FEMA and state officials on federal military response capabilities.
“The ability of Region II DCE to move operations from Manhattan, N.Y., to relocate to Albany, N.Y., and be integrated into the Joint Field Office within 12 hours is a testament to the Department of Defense's commitment to support our Federal partners and better serve the American people in their time of need,” said Navy Lt. Clemia Anderson III, joint regional medical planner, U.S. Northern Command.“Failure was not an option, and under the leadership of the Region II defense coordinating officer (Army North), the team refocused our efforts and came together to ensure that the relocation of the tactical operations center and main operations center was seamless to the Federal partners and the American people.”
In all, more than 6,500 active-duty service members have been on standby since Aug. 27, ready to assist potential states affected by Hurricane Irene. In New Jersey, nearly 100 troops from U.S. Army North and U.S. Northern Command provided command and control for military forces supporting efforts in the northeast.
“The states involved, and FEMA, tell us what they need and we provide it,” said Army Lt. Col. Kem Fleming, an operations officer with Army North.
Army North deployed two headquarters elements – Joint Task Force – 51, comprised of elements of the CCP, from Fort Sam Houston, and Joint Task Force – Civil Support from Fort Eustis, Va. – to help synchronize any federal response efforts. The states’ National Guard forces responded quickly as did the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to support the entire government’s response effort.
The teams worked throughout the weekend to identify potential DoD needs. Once identified, the command placed the appropriate forces on Prepare to Deploy Orders or pre-positioned the forces so as to provide for a rapid response if called upon.
“In the DSCA mission, it is extremely important to be flexible. This allows the team to provide the required support where it is needed,” said Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Bailey, operations noncommissioned officer, DCE, Region II, based out of New York City. “In the supporting role, the DCE has to be flexible to ensure that the people of the affected area receive timely support and materials.”
In the end, Hurricane Irene did not pack as much punch as originally expected, and the need for federal forces diminished. It was vital though, to ensure the support was there if needed.
“Working operations it's very important to ‘set’ the region prior to an emergency,” said Sgt. 1st Class LaMarr Payne, operations NCO, DCE, Region IV. “Our job was to provide the necessary support to local and state officials in North Carolina. They knew that the necessary assistance was available, if needed – at the right time, in the right place.”
The Hurricane Irene recovery activities marked the first time that dual-status commanders were used to provide command and control over both active-duty and reserve-component (Nation Guard and Army Reserve) forces. The dual-status commanders for the response missions were appointed in New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island.
It marks a significant change in how the Department of Defense coordinates its disaster response activities. The dual-status commander concept was created in 2009 with the objective of streamlining operations among federal and state assets and to focus on coordinated efforts of the active-duty and reserve-component forces. This is largely a result of lessons learned following Hurricane Katrina, which also directly led to the creation of the 10 standing Defense Coordinating Officers/Elements that are co-located with the 10 FEMA regions to better coordinate Defense Support to Civil Authority missions since 2006.
A majority of the DCOs, who lead the element, are former Army brigade commanders who bring a wealth of knowledge and leadership experiences to the position. They have been called upon many times in the past to provide DSCA, to include the three nearly simultaneous hurricanes in 2008.
“We cannot fail our fellow Americans when we respond to a disaster such as Irene,” said Swan. “We have to be ready when our government asks us to respond.
“This is our most important mission!”