By 1st Lt. Joe Travato
Wisconsin National Guard
MANAGUA, Nicaragua (2/4/13) - There's a world of difference between tornadoes and winter storms, the natural disasters typical to Wisconsin, and the earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions more common to Nicaragua. But the planning and preparation needed to respond effectively is a similar process, whether in the Dairy State or a Central American nation.
With that in mind, seven members of the Wisconsin National Guard's Military Engagement Team (MET) – representing MET's communications, logistics and operations teams – collaborated on disaster response with officials from the Nicaraguan army's civil defense authority for three days beginning Jan. 28.
"Even though they have disasters that we don't experience in Wisconsin, there is a process that takes place," said Lt. Col. Robert Buettner, the MET's officer in charge. "Hopefully we can show them better ways to operate and take what they currently have and improve their communication."
As the conference began, Capt. Joshua Porter, the officer in charge of the MET's operations section, said, "I expect to learn just as much from them as I hope they learn from us."
Armed with lessons from past experiences, the Soldiers from both nations began exchanging ideas and sharing practices. Wisconsin's Guardsmen, fresh off their activation for a major winter storm that blanketed the state with up to 20 inches of snow in December, shared the process by which they coordinated their response.
"We have a lot of similarities in how support to domestic responses works in both of our countries," Maj. Dan Statz, the Wisconsin National Guard's chief of future operations, said while briefing the Nicaraguan leadership.
The MET leadership had the opportunity to see how their Nicaraguan counterparts conduct business Jan. 31 at a neighborhood on the shores of Lake Managua plagued by annual flooding.
"In the [United States] we have the same issues with rivers and floods, and the government buys their property to be able to let them move, but if they don't want to, you can't force them to," explained Maj. Jeremy Holmes as he spoke to Nicaraguan civil defense officials.
The neighborhood they visited, situated in a low-lying area near Lake Managua, is vulnerable to flooding as lake levels rise during the rainy season, so the Nicaraguan government is evacuating families and moving them to temporary shelters. The rainy season begins in spring.
"This is not an emergency process or a short-term process. It is actually part of the government's preventive actions," Norman Sanchez, the civil defense operations director, said of the process through a translator.
Sanchez explained to the MET leadership that many of the people in the at-risk neighborhood hail from Nicaragua's rural areas. They come to urban Managua seeking a better life.
"Unfortunately, they used the least adequate areas to build their homes," said Sanchez. Due to this, they are very vulnerable to threats such as the lake rising. Pretty much where we're standing is part of the lake."
He said that in the past, the government would evacuate people from this area on the north side of Managua, and temporarily relocate them, only to repeat the same process the following year. Now, the government aims to make the move permanent.
"Even though these people have property deeds, once they're moved out, this area is declared by the municipality as uninhabitable due to the high risk," Sanchez said. "The point is to try to avoid this becoming a cycle."
The Nicaraguan government, using five-ton trucks donated by the U.S. Department of Defense, was in the process of loading families and all of their belongings for evacuation when the MET arrived at the site. The Wisconsin National Guard had sent a maintenance team to the country earlier in January to instruct the Nicaraguan civil defense authorities on proper vehicle maintenance. The National Guard also donated spare parts, tires, and equipment through the State Partnership Program Wisconsin maintains with the country.
The visit served as a capstone for the MET leadership's three-day trip to Nicaragua, and it provided valuable insight into how the nation's civil defense operates in the event of emergencies. Working at the site were civil defense personnel and humanitarian rescue teams from the Nicaraguan army and Managua police.
"There are different agencies that are working collectively - the civilian and the military," said Maj. Myron Davis, the MET's logistics officer, who noted the similarities to how the National Guard works with civilian agencies in Wisconsin. "So anytime you have two governmental agencies working together, there is always a lot of extra coordination that needs to take place. There are communications breakdowns because of how civilians run operations compared to military."
Davis relished the opportunity to learn from the Nicaraguans as well.
"I think it's a great opportunity," he said of the developing partnership. "I think there is a good opportunity to really share lessons learned and have a good partnership going forward. I think it's a win-win for both countries."
The MET will return to Nicaragua for approximately one month in February and March. During that visit, each of its three sections will have an opportunity to work directly with their Nicaraguan counterparts in planning and preparing for natural disaster responses.
The MET's involvement in Nicaragua came about through the State Partnership Program, which aligns states in the U.S. with countries around the world. There are currently 65 global partnerships between U.S. states and foreign countries, including Wisconsin's partnership with Nicaragua. The partnership program creates a relationship in which states work with countries on a variety of levels via exchanges, shared knowledge, and resources.
Conceived in 2011, the MET began a military-to-military relationship with Nicaragua's in 2012. Members of the Nicaraguan military visited Wisconsin in July 2012, and the 10-member MET spent two weeks in Puerto Rico learning Spanish through immersion in September 2012.
Their current trip, the team's first to Nicaragua, is working to build a plan for the MET's return to the country in February and March. On that trip, each section will visit for approximately two weeks and get a hands-on assessment of Nicaragua's processes and procedures for disaster response.
The relationship Wisconsin Guardsmen are building with Nicaragua extends far beyond disaster response planning though. The MET's mission here is just another piece in the growing partnership between Nicaragua, Wisconsin, and ultimately, the United States.
Speaking to the MET's leadership, Col. Edward Bonfoey, the senior defense official at the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua, said, "What you all are doing here is vitally important." He added, "That gives me hope that maybe we can take this [relationship] to the next level."