Monday, September 11, 2017

To Reach Hurricane-Hit States, National Guard, Coast Guard Must Be Nimble: Coast Guard’s flexibility allowed search and rescue units that finished immediate duties in Texas to stay on standby for more storms

The Wall Street Journal
By Ben Kesling
Sept. 10, 2017 4:29 p.m. ET

A pair of hurricanes striking within days across multiple states could be a logistical disaster for a mishmash of state agencies and federal administrators, but national authorities say that even spread thin they can react in ways that cut through red tape.

B. Gen. Wendul Hagler, vice chief of domestic operations for the National Guard, said before the storm hit that 46,000 National Guardsmen were part of the joint force and over the weekend they were ramping up preparations along the southeast coast, including Georgia and South Carolina.

“We’ve identified forces totaling about 30,000,” he said, of potential troops for Florida. “They were prepared to be employed in Texas.”

Gen. Hagler said states have become much better at sharing resources since the 1996 implementation of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, primarily a state-to-state agreement approved by Congress in the years after Hurricane Andrew.

The compact helps to make sure licensing and permits are accepted across state lines in disasters as well as making sure insurance, liability and reimbursement issues are streamlined and not bogged down by interstate incompatibility.

Many emergency-response stakeholders meet once a year for planning. Gen. Hagler said state and federal governments were well prepared after just finishing the most recent conference in May to identify gaps in emergency response.

“All disasters are local and they’re addressed initially by local authorities,” Gen. Hagler said, adding that the National Guard is designed to beef up that response as quickly as possible.

Even with reforms and stepped-up preparations, federal authorities say people need to recognize local responders can bear the brunt of efforts.

“This is a wake-up call. People cannot depend solely on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be responsible for a majority. States do a lot of work,” said William Brock Long, FEMA administrator, last week in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” after Hurricane Harvey hit and preparations for Hurricane Irma were under way. “In this country, federal disaster recovery support comes from a multitude of agencies.”

R. Adm. Peter Brown, the Coast Guard’s commander of the region that includes Florida and Puerto Rico, said the Coast Guard had already responded to Irma in the Virgin Islands and in Puerto Rico late last week, while other units shifted into a holding pattern following Harvey and waited for Irma to make landfall in Florida.

“Resources from throughout the East Coast of the U.S. are positioned in a way that they’re not committed right now to one state or another, but as the storm track firms up they will reposition,” he said last week, adding that the Coast Guard’s flexibility allowed search and rescue units that have finished immediate duties in Texas to stay on standby instead of heading back to the Great Lakes or New England.

Other military units sometimes don’t have the same flexibility to respond to domestic crisis, Adm. Brown said. National Guard and Defense Department units may take time to mobilize, but the Coast Guard, because it falls under the Department of Homeland Security and has bases in many of the places hit by storms, can shift and move resources easily.

“Our military nature and unified chain of command allows us to very quickly move resources around,” he said. “Also, because we do have the existing in-statute mission to perform search and rescue, we don’t necessarily have to wait for somebody to ask us to move in.”

In Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands the Coast Guard could just go as needed.

The Coast Guard exchanges liaison officers with other branches and works with FEMA to ensure close coordination, Adm. Brown said. The Guard can also push resources as needed to plug temporary holes at other agencies.

That could be of special use in Florida, where the storm shifted course and has now hit both sides of the peninsula.

Adm. Brown said the Coast Guard and others are feeling the strain of dealing with multiple major storms, both of which will require weeks or months of follow-on rather than a few days of emergency response.

“We’re not at all surprised that the Coast Guard and other resources frankly are stretched thin,” he said. “The amount of geography and the amount of population under threat is so large.”

The Coast Guard not only has to respond to search and rescue operations, but also has to work to reset and maintain the shipping lanes in and around Florida, and reset the navigational markers in the area. The Coast Guard is surveying the many ports and lanes near Puerto Rico that will be key for resupply of basic commodities and for resupplying fuel to airports and shipping ports in Florida and elsewhere.

Original article can be found here ➤

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