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My Disaster Response

What’s it like to deliver when your home state needs you most? Six Soldiers who responded to domestic crises reflect on the experiences they’ll never forget.

A hospital needs power. An elderly man needs shelter. A child needs water. When disaster strikes at home, communities might face all of these emergencies and much more. And true to its motto, the Guard is always there.  

After floods, fires, storms or other domestic emergencies, America’s most versatile force rushes in to support local authorities, rescue residents, sustain populations and help entire cities stand on their own again.  

That was especially true in 2016, a year when severe weather battered the nation again and again. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there were 12 weather and climate disaster events in the U.S. this year (through November) in which the destruction exceeded $1 billion. As of late October, the National Weather Service estimated that 140 deaths this year were attributed to floodwaters; there are typically about 82 per year. Overall, in fiscal year 2016, the Guard devoted more than 1.2 million man-days to domestic operations (which include disaster response). That’s more than double the figure of the previous year.  

In crisis, the Guard can provide just about everything, from scientific expertise to aerial assets to state-of-the-art communication gear to plain old elbow grease. No matter the problem, Soldiers are determined to solve it. 

That dedication lifts up millions of Americans, and it profoundly defines for Soldiers what it means to wear the uniform. In the following pages, five Soldiers who responded to five disasters over the past year tell the stories of their responses. Their experiences show the Guard at its best and reveal the special pride that only Guard Soldiers share. 

Who knows what 2017 will bring? All that matters is that Soldiers will stand ready. America is counting on it. 


BLIZZARD IN NEW MEXICO

SPC Jaime L. Lopez
920th Engineeer Company, New Mexico Army National Guard

Winter Storm Goliath began in late December 2015 and left communities across the nation reeling—from tornadoes in Texas, flooding in the Midwest and blizzard conditions in the Southern Plains. Parts of eastern New Mexico reported snowdrifts of up to 10 feet, and most roads were rendered impassable.  

On Dec. 27, 2015, soon after Winter Storm Goliath filled the streets with snow, I received my first mission, which was to aid a motorist outside of Roswell, NM. I was told that the motorist was stranded in his vehicle and was far from home. He had no food, no water and no heater in his truck, and he did not have clothing suited for the cold weather. My sergeant and I quickly prepared for the mission and headed out, but the mission didn’t go as planned.  

We found the motorist and got within 100 yards of his stranded vehicle, but our truck became lodged in deep snow that reached to the top of its wheels. My sergeant and I decided to walk the rest of the way. Our plan was to bring the motorist back to our vehicle, where we could also provide him with heat, food and water until the storm passed. 

As I made my way through the snow, I spotted two more vehicles completely covered in snow. Thankfully, there was nobody in them. After looking around for the original motorist, I couldn’t find anyone, so I hiked my way back. My sergeant learned that the man had found shelter at a nearby farm. We were both pleased to know that he was safe. 

Because the weather was so severe, no one could come get us, so my sergeant and I had to spend the night in our vehicle. It was intense. The wind, the snow—which was up to my hip outside. I can’t say that was one of the more comfortable nights I’ve had. After sunrise the next day, we hiked our way out of the snowdrifts, where our fellow Soldiers were able to pick us up and take us back to the armory. Once there, we were assigned additional duties.

There were many more missions for us over the next four days due to all the snow the storm had left behind. We cleared neighborhood streets and driveways so people could make it to the hospital, and we plowed snow several feet high in front of emergency vehicles so emergency workers could respond to all their calls.

Of all these missions, this one stands out the most because of the danger. I was willing to do whatever it took to get to that man and get him to a safe place so he could go home to his family. Even though we got stuck, no one needed to come rescue us because we were ready for our mission and prepared to help the people of our community. That will stay with me always.


FLINT WATER CRISIS

SSG D'Juana Watson
1072nd Support Maintenance Company, Michigan Army National Guard

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder activated more than 270 Guard members on Jan. 12, after elevated levels of lead were detected in Flint’s municipal water system. The critical humanitarian mission lasted 10 days, with Soldiers distributing water filters and bottled water to citizens at fire stations and door to door. 

I remember watching news reports about the contaminated water in Flint in December 2015. At that time, I wondered what I could do to help—maybe make a monetary donation or send some cases of water that could be distributed to the people affected. But it never crossed my mind that I would get a call like the one I got a few weeks later.

My readiness NCO, Sergeant First Class Delano Hudgens, called and instructed me to report to Flint to assist in passing out water filters and cases of bottled water. I jumped at the unexpected opportunity to help. 

Once I arrived, I learned that my fellow Soldiers and I would be working alongside members of the Flint Police Department, the Air Force and the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of a task force called the Flint Water Response Team. On my second day there, I was put in charge of my own team. We were all very excited to go out and help the citizens of Flint. 

When we went to our first house, a young woman came to the door. The look on her face was priceless—I remember it like it was yesterday. She seemed relieved to see us. She shook my hand and said, “Oh my goodness! Thank you for your service.” 

This was all happening in January, one of the coldest months in Michigan. It was freezing outside, and there we were going from house to house carrying filters and cases of water. But even on days when it rained or snowed, we never stopped. I couldn’t imagine standing in those citizens’ shoes. They didn’t have water to drink or cook with, to bathe or wash clothes in. I was determined to do whatever I could to help. And so was my team.

So we endured the cold, rain and snow. We pushed through the pain and never missed a beat. The sacrifices didn’t matter to us, because we were so grateful for the opportunity to help the people of Flint. If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat. 


FIRE IN KANSAS

CW3 Patrick Reynolds
B Company, 1/108th Aviation Regiment, Kansas Army National Guard

On Easter weekend, Kansas aviators joined ground crews in a fight to suppress the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Using four Black Hawks equipped with Bambi Buckets, they dumped some 68,000 gallons of water on the blaze, which scorched approximately 400,000 acres of prairie and ranch land in Kansas and Oklahoma.

In late March, a brush fire started somewhere in northern Oklahoma. With no rain, it was dry across the plains, and the fire soon spread north into Kansas.

I’m a full-time employee at the Army Aviation Support Facility in Salina, KS, and that’s where I was on Good Friday, watching news coverage of the fire. That day, the State Aviation Office gave us a heads up that we might be called to respond. And the very next day—Saturday, March 26—we deployed.

From Salina, we flew southwest to Medicine Lodge, where the initial view from the ground was typical of Kansas in springtime—fields of wheat and native grasses turning from brown to green with new growth. But way out on the southern horizon, almost as far left and right as you could see, everything was black. There was a distinct line marking where the fire had burned. As the day stretched on and temperatures grew warmer, the fires started building back up, and there was dense, white-gray smoke all along the perimeter.

I don’t think any of us had ever actively fought a fire. We’d trained for it by doing water drops on simulated areas, but this was different. We’d never dealt with the smoke or the ground crews; we’d never had to apply reading a fire line. Faced with the real thing, there were periods of low visibility; in order to drop water on the fire, we had to fly our Black Hawk through smoke so thick it was difficult to see what was on the other side.

It was a challenge. But it was one we were all excited about. We got to go in there and actually do what we’d trained to do—and we got our fill that weekend.

One of the oddest moments of the mission came on Easter morning. When we got to our aircraft at sunup, everything was covered in 2–3 inches of snow. We just looked at each other and said, “We’re going to fight fires in the snow on Easter. This is awesome!”

The coordination with the firefighters on the ground was very good, as was interacting with those guys after the mission. We were able to reach areas they couldn’t get to, and they were extremely appreciative of our work.

The people of Medicine Lodge really opened up their town. Church members and other groups all came together—on Easter weekend, no less—to feed everybody and make sure we had water and toiletry items we needed … all those little things that people often forget. It was a very gracious environment.

While I don’t wish that experience on any community, I would absolutely go again if called.


FLOODING IN LOUISIANA

PFC Kyron Jones
1023rd Engineer Battalion, Louisiana Army National Guard 

When devastating flash floods pounded southern Louisiana in mid-August, the National Guard responded in force. Nearly 4,000 troops assisted in a range of missions, including evacuations, search and rescue, engineering, supply distribution, and shelter support. All told, 20,500 citizens were rescued during what the Red Cross called the nation’s worst disaster since Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

I've experienced a lot in my two short years of Guard service, but Aug. 11 marked a first for me. On that day, my squad leader notified me that our unit had been placed on standby for flood detail in southern Louisiana. Within a few hours, we received the official call to report for Active Duty. After the initial shock wore off, I was excited about this new adventure and being allowed to serve. 

On Aug. 15, we were briefed about the sling-load mission—we would be working to rig super sacks filled with sand to Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters. From there, aircrews would transport and place the super sacks, forming barriers against rising floodwaters in areas that desperately needed protection. 

First, we were divided into two teams; one was stationed at the super sack drop-off site, and the other at the pickup site. I was on the pickup team, which was located near the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, about 20 miles south of Baton Rouge. 

Each member of the four-person pickup team had a specific task. Position 1 was located by the load and assisted pilots by providing directional hand signals. Position 2 manned the grounding rod [a safety component that receives the built-up electrostatic electricity produced by a hovering helicopter]. Positions 3 and 4 worked together; one Soldier held the hook waiting to be attached to the load, and the other stood nearby, ready to provide support if needed. 

Flood detail was a first-time learning experience for the majority of us. As a result, the first day moved at a slower-than-normal pace. But once everyone was familiar with the process, we made a real difference. 

Over the course of our three-day mission, all four members of our team took turns serving at each position. This way, we all became knowledgeable about the sling-load process and the duties at each position. 

Throughout my Guard career, I’ve had several experiences that changed my way of thinking. Working at Position 3 during our sling-load mission is one of them. Hooking a super sack to a hovering helicopter was life-changing for me. Standing under that aircraft, I had an epiphany about what it truly means to serve. I gained a new level of pride for being allowed to wear the uniform. In that moment, I realized just how many lives we impact—that, without our service, the communities we assist would be totally different. 

We enlisted to serve, even in the midst of a storm. We enlisted to make a difference, even when it appears that nothing is wrong. We enlisted to protect; after all, the communities we protect are the same ones we live in. We enlisted to honor, because without honor and respect there is no true service. We are the Louisiana National Guard! 


HURRICANE MATTHEW

1LT Jay H. Hosack
C Company, 1/131st Aviation Regiment, North Carolina Army National Guard

Responsible for at least 45 deaths in the U.S., Matthew cut a swath of destruction through the Caribbean and along the East Coast in early October. In the hardest-hit state of North Carolina, more than 1,100 Guard troops were activated to assist. Composed of NCARNG aviators and crew chiefs, civilian rescue technicians and emergency management personnel, the North Carolina Helicopter and Aquatic Rescue Team (NCHART) was a critical source of aid, conducting 78 hoist rescues via UH-60 Black Hawk and LUH-72 Lakota.

As Hurricane Matthew worked its way up the Atlantic Coast, my fellow members of the NCHART and I knew it was a matter of when, not if, our phones would ring. The call came on the evening of Oct. 7—three hoist crews and one general support crew were to be postured for 24-hour coverage out of Army Aviation Support Facility #2 in Salisbury, NC, for seven days.

The majority of our work came on Tuesday, Oct. 11. On that day, our crew—Chief Warrant Officer 3 Tom Underwood, Sergeant First Class Robin McDaniel, Sergeant Jacob Moore, three civilian rescue technicians from the Charlotte Fire Department, and me as the pilot—made 11 hoist
rescues in the severely flooded town of Lumber-ton, NC, located about 100 miles south of Raleigh. As we approached the city and began our search and rescue patterns, it became clear that the water levels were rising quickly and gaining speed.  

The number of stranded citizens requiring rescue was overwhelming, and we immediately went to work passing grid coordinates to boat crews, as well as requesting additional aircraft be pushed to our location. We moved from one house to the next, pulling people off of rooftops, decks, truck beds and anywhere else they’d been able to go to stay above the water.

Near the end of the day, we were flying over a mobile home community, searching for signs of life. We had nearly called the area clear when a hand appeared out of a front door, waving frantically at our helicopter.  

We sent down a rescuer to assess the situation, and he found a young couple with a baby inside. Their home was in imminent danger of becoming unstable and shifting off its foundation; it was clear we needed to move the family to a safe area. After confirming that there were no boat crews available for immediate response, we sent our second rescuer down the hoist with the rescue basket. Because of the weight and space limitations of the hoist, we planned to bring the mother and child up first, then go back for the father.

Every rescue is critical, and the safety and professionalism of my crew never lapses; however, having an infant of my own, I don’t think I could honestly say this rescue wasn’t different. When a child’s life is on the line, it just feels more intense. Every ounce of concentration I had to give was put into the flight controls in my hands, knowing that even a foot of drift in the helicopter could cause swing or spin on the basket.  

After the first hoist of that rescue—the one for the mother and her child—hearing my crew chief announce “Survivor 1 and 2 secured” had never had more of an impact on me. In moments like that, you know why you signed up, why you train so hard, why you push yourself to be the best. Moments like that, I’m prouder than ever to be a Guard pilot of the NCHART.


HURRICANE MATTHEW

SFC Darren Deese
C Company, 1/120th Infantry Regiment, North Carolina Army National Guard

Relief efforts in North Carolina also included critical assistance on the ground, from the distribution and delivery of essential supplies like water, MREs, medicine and cots to emergency shelter support to high-water rescues. Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen joined forces with state and local agencies, providing desperately needed aid in communities devastated by severe flooding. For many of those responders, the work was an opportunity to fulfill a mission unique to Guard members: helping family, friends and neighbors in the very communities they call home.

Until recently, most of my missions with the North Carolina National Guard have taken me great distances in the effort to assist others. But the devastation in southeastern North Carolina caused by Hurricane Matthew gave me the opportunity to offer much-needed guidance and support in my own backyard.

I grew up in the small town of Pembroke, NC, and still live in the area, so I’m aware of the hardships endured by so many in Robeson County, one of the poorest counties in the state. The damaging floods from Hurricane Matthew only added to the struggles of those who reside here. The hardest-hit areas were those where many citizens were dependent on government assistance. Their houses were flooded, and they were left homeless. They lost everything! There will be a long recovery period for them, as they will have to wait for government housing to be rebuilt. 

There were also citizens trapped in their homes. We partnered with swift-water rescue teams to help get these folks to safety. We worked day and night until everyone was safe. 

In addition to being a part of an outstanding Guard team, I was tasked with coordinating efforts with a phenomenal group of state and local law enforcement officers, emergency service personnel, county representatives and advisors, as well as volunteers. From mapping routes in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to unloading truckloads of supplies at shelters, I worked side by side with family members, longtime friends, former classmates and co-workers, and mentors to provide assistance to my people and my county. 

When I delivered supplies to Purnell Swett High School—the school I graduated from—I was able to work with North Carolina District 47 Rep. Charles Graham. Rep. Graham was my Little League Baseball coach when I was 11 years old. He taught me many life lessons as a kid. After Matthew, Rep. Graham was on the ground to ensure his constituents were receiving needed supplies. He was thrilled to see the North Carolina National Guard show up with FEMA provisions. 

At the EOC, I was also able to work with a longtime neighbor, Mrs. Kelli Blue. She helped me coordinate feeding all the Soldiers on the ground and ensured we had everything we needed. Working alongside her as an adult was surreal; I grew up helping mow her lawn and doing other small jobs for her. Knowing Mrs. Blue made things easy—I was working with someone I knew personally rather than a stranger. 

It’s hard to put into words how meaningful this experience has been. I’ve always known that the National Guard was the right career choice for me. The skills, knowledge and training I have received are invaluable and have allowed me to help others in ways I never could have on my own. That’s one of the many reasons I joined. In the wake of Matthew, the personal connection I have to the people and places in Robeson County brought new meaning and satisfaction to my work. Although there is still a lot to be done, I am honored to have been involved in helping restore and rebuild the place I call home.

 

WHAT WORKS IN A CRISIS

A Florida leader's practical tips after Hurricane Matthew

By COL John Pelleriti

The Florida National Guard Joint Operations Center published its first spot report for Hurricane Matthew on Sept. 28. Over the next two weeks, we mobilized over 3,600 Soldiers and Airmen for the largest hurricane response in the state since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Missions included opening and staffing evacuation shelters; providing county liaison officers (a link between the Guard and first responders); wide-area search and rescue, reconnaissance, and security support to law enforcement; humanitarian assistance/points of distribution; State Logistics Response Center in Orlando, and logistics support areas; aerial post-storm damage assessments; and staff support to the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. 

Below are the key takeaways from my perspective as the J2/J3 (director of military support) during the response. Each state has unique populations, geography, threats, emergency management agencies and force structure, so what works in Florida may not work in another state. That said, hopefully these recent observations will help in planning for your most likely and most dangerous scenarios. 

Hurricane response can be fast, cost- effective or mistake-free: pick one. 
There really is no choice: If we are late to need, we fail. Senior officials must be willing to spend money prior to landfall to activate and pre-position forces in anticipation of expected missions. If we’re not already activated, it takes 24 hours to alert, marshal and deploy after receipt of mission, and that’s too late. On Wednesday night, Oct. 5, we received a mission we had not anticipated: Provide 1,000 Soldiers to open and staff evacuation shelters that need to be operational Thursday morning with potential landfall in south Florida Thursday afternoon. This was “Murphy” at work, as no amount of planning can anticipate every requirement in disaster response. Because our governor, director of emergency management and adjutant general had already activated and pre-staged two brigades, we were manning evacuation shelters all along our east coast the next morning.

Partner with DoD early. 
We activated a dual status commander, JTF-FL Commander Brigadier General Ralph Ribas, on Oct. 6, and I wish we would have done it even earlier. For a large disaster like Matthew, there will be plenty of work to go around, so why not leverage the capability that DoD can bring to the fight: planes, ships, search and rescue (SAR) platforms, logistics from the sea, port opening, etc. When we need DoD, we’re going to really need them, so make them part of the team early.

Early on, leverage NGB. 
The NGB Joint, Army National Guard (ARNG) and Air National Guard staffs can be a huge enabler for coordinating large-scale, multistate Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) events. EMAC charts are still useful for small, single-state events, but for a large, multistate event, I would rather have NGB provide me (the affected state) with a suggested list of recommended EMAC partners/units with initial cost estimates based on force generation models, deployments, unit status reports, etc. Once NGB does the legwork, I’ll take it from there and coordinate the state-to-state EMACs. Coordinating large-scale EMACs is time consuming and staff intensive—staff and time I don’t have in the middle of a response.

Take advantage of combat arms battalions and brigades. 
When it comes to Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA), multipurpose combat arms battalions and brigades are the centerpiece of our response for the same reasons they are in combat. They are designed to be self-sufficient, adaptable and well suited to wide-area security, humanitarian assistance, wide-area SAR, tactical (high-wheeled) vehicle transport, logistics, engineering, and communications in austere environments for extended periods. They are also flexible enough to respond to unforeseen requests like running evacuation shelters. I can’t think of a better military tool to leverage in support of civilian authorities in a major disaster zone than a Brigade Combat Team that lives in the area of operations (AO). Combat arms formations may not be an exact match to every DSCA task, and they aren’t really cheap, but they are fast, adaptable, robust, self-sufficient, and can accomplish just about any DSCA task. Like combat, we attach mission-specific enablers to augment combat arms formations for DSCA. For example, in this case we attached RED HORSE squadron engineers to our air defense artillery brigade to give them route-clearance capability. 

Don’t try to overmanage the response post-landfall.  
Once you get your pre-landfall force packages in place, they need to move out immediately post-landfall with clear operational priorities: 

  1. Take immediate lifesaving actions 
  2. Link up and establish communications with county emergency operations centers (EOCs) 
  3. Assist civilian authorities with wide-area SAR and establishing security 
  4. Provide humanitarian assistance and logistics (e.g., points of distribution and logistics support areas) 

The key here is having state partners willing to approve broad mission guidance. Waiting to provide the perfect tool for the perfect county mission request will result in being late to need. A county EOC immediately post-event is a chaotic place. They need help, not forms and procedures.

Florida Citizen-Soldiers 1SG Timothy Smith, CPT Kirk Strander and CW2 Joseph McKire discuss the response at the Joint Operations Center during Hurricane Matthew.

Establish your command and control (C2)structure for the worst case and add forces as needed. 
If you think you might eventually need a brigade response, assign a brigade headquarters to the AO even if you have only a company activated early. That way, if the response grows, you can add capability without continuously restructuring your C2 framework. 

Make sure your training is realistic. 
One of the Airmen working our JOC desk told me in the middle of the event that she couldn’t tell the difference between our hurricane training exercise (HURREX) and the real thing for Matthew. There’s no better training validation mechanism than that for me. 

Maximize resources for wide-area vs. aerial SAR. 
We have found that our CERFP Search and Extraction (S/E) element is a perfect fit for our DSCA ground and boat wide-area reconnaissance and SAR mission. They already conduct technical S/E and swift-water rescue training every year as part of their CERFP mission. We organize our recon/SAR teams into two tactical vehicles and two boats and attach them to our maneuver brigades. It works great. We also use our aviation and ARNG Special Forces teams from the 3/20th Special Forces Group (Airborne) for aerial SAR.

ONE BUSY YEAR

A few dates tell just part of the story of the Guard's domestic response.

 

Dec. 29, 2015
More than 600 Missouri troops respond to historic flooding in the eastern region of the state. They provide security patrols and help with sandbagging, traffic control, and water purification and delivery.  

Jan. 12
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder activates Michigan Guard troops in Genesee County to assist with the water supply crisis in Flint that was caused by lead contamination in the city’s supply pipes.  

Jan. 14
About 300 Louisiana Guard troops are part of 24-hour operations to build protective barriers against approaching floodwaters around the state.  

Jan. 25
Virginia Soldiers assist state police and first responders in reaching residents needing aid after historic snowfall.  

March 10
Louisiana Soldiers in three counties assist with high-water rescues after flooding in the northwest part of the state.  

March 29
Kansas Guard troops battle the Anderson Creek fire, the worst wildfire in state history.  

April 18
The Louisiana National Guard hosts Vigilant Guard 2016, to train for all-hazards response and emergency preparation in conjunction with federal and local authorities. The exercise simulates a Category 3 hurricane. 

April 19
Texas troops from the 736th Component Repair Company, 36th Infantry Division, pull 140 people to safety from severe flooding in Houston. 

May 23
More than 70 Wyoming Soldiers and Airmen help local authorities and residents place sandbags to help deter flooding in several locations around the state. 

June 13-22
Several North Carolina units train on hurricane preparedness in Operation Vigilant Seahawk.  

June 21
New Mexico Soldiers and Airmen respond to the Dog Head fire, south of Tijeres, NM, that would eventually burn 18,000 acres. 

June 24
Virginia activates about 20 Soldiers with Humvees and light/medium tactical trucks to assist flood relief operations in two counties after a state of emergency is declared. 

July 5
Teamwork between West Virginia Guard troops and local authorities is said to save countless lives after severe flooding in Clendenin, WV. 

July 5
At the request of the governor’s office, four helicopter crews from the California National Guard join with local forces to fight fires in Kern and Fresno counties.  

July 11
Colorado Soldiers and Airmen respond to the Cold Springs fire near Nederland, CO. More than 2,000 people are evacuated. 

July 15
After flooding in northern Wisconsin, Soldiers from a medevac unit help transport stranded residents to dialysis treatments.  

July 19
Wisconsin Soldiers assist authorities in evaluating road damage from the recent flooding.  

Aug. 22
Nearly 4,000 Guard troops conduct emergency flood operations and help rescue more than 19,000 citizens after heavy flash flooding in 12 Louisiana parishes. 

Sept. 2
About 100 Soldiers and Airmen in Florida are activated, with another 6,000 placed on alert, in preparation for Hurricane Hermine, a Category 1 storm. 

Sept. 26
Puerto Rico Soldiers transport and deliver electrical generators after large-scale power outages across the island. 

Oct. 6
Thousands of troops across multiple states respond to Hurricane Matthew.  

Nov. 11
South Carolina Soldiers respond to authorities’ request for assistance in helping fight wildfires in Pickens County.