ARLINGTON, Va. – The National Guard has been busy responding to recent tornadoes and flooding in the Midwest, as well as other areas, but stands ready for this year’s “hurricane season” that begins June 1.
“These are catastrophic weather events that we take very seriously,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Burkett, the vice director of domestic operations at the National Guard Bureau. “We stand ready to respond if so called.”
The season runs through Nov. 30 and is when conditions are ideal for hurricane formation in the North Atlantic area. Last year’s hurricane season saw Guard members respond in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which struck the Carolinas in September, and Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm that made landfall in October near Panama City, Florida. National Guard forces responded to 71 natural disasters last fiscal year.
“Last year we had a lot of things going on,” said, Burkett, of the storm response, adding that lessons learned from response to those storms – and Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Erma in 2017 – have been incorporated this year to allow for quicker and more fluid response operations.
“We have worked hard over the last year to develop and refine our internal processes,” said Burkett.
That includes identifying beforehand what units and resources would be drawn upon to respond from outside an affected region or state.
“We’ve already forecasted who is going to support and how they’re going to support based on availability of forces that we have currently,” Burkett said.
Identifying those elements early on also means plans can be easily augmented to meet the needs of the specific response effort.
“These are the requirements we think we’re going to need,” said Burkett, of the process. “We can identify shortfalls in advance. We can look at that and say what we can do to support.”
The approach, said Burkett, is based on lessons learned and anticipation.
“We’re doing very predictive force planning on this through how we can support each other very effectively and very quickly if a disaster happens,” he said.
Part of that planning and response readiness comes in the form of the All-Hazards Playbook, a checklist of sorts that identifies initial actions NGB staff would take in the event of a hurricane or other large-scale disaster.
“It provides a guide and initial first actions for our staff to do and helps decision making,” said Burkett, adding the playbook allows staff to respond quickly to get Guard resources and assets to where they’re needed most.
It also ensures the timely arrival of those assets.
“What we don’t want to do is overwhelm [those responding in the affected area] with a bunch of resources they really don’t need, and we don’t want to overwhelm them with a lot of stuff on a timeline that doesn’t fit with what they’re trying to do,” said Burkett.
The Guard can easily move those assets through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a mutual aid system that allows Guard elements in one state to support response operations in another.
“Through EMAC, we can start flowing resources and forces into the response [effort] and support it that way,” said Burkett. “At the National Guard Bureau, our role is to understand what is going on and help facilitate these transactions and do it in a timely manner so they arrive on time and when they’re needed.”
Guard elements in states most likely to get hit by a hurricane have also been preparing by running through training exercises and other internal checks.
“That is absolutely fundamental to a good response,” said Burkett. “That just doesn’t happen magically.”
The Texas National Guard, said Burkett, has run through two events in preparation for hurricane season.
“The first was a senior leader hurricane table-top exercise,” he said. “The second was a hurricane rehearsal-of-concept exercise. They’re planning another exercise next month.”
The exercises focused heavily on improving response operations based on items learned from Hurricane Harvey, which struck the Texas coast in 2017.
“They talked about air evacuations, search and rescue, evacuee processing, basically the whole [response],” said Burkett.
But, Burkett stressed, the Guard response to any natural disaster is a collaborative one in support of civilian authorities.
“This is a team effort,” he said. “It starts at the local level. It really starts with the civilian planners and managers. There is a range of different agencies involved.”
Partnerships are key, said Burkett.
“We partner with U.S. Northern Command – as the [Defense Support for Civil Authorities] synchronizer for the Department of Defense – the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and a host of other agencies at the state and local level,” he said.
But, Burkett said, the Guard brings with it certain skill sets that only come from training for the warfight and taking part in overseas missions.
“Being endowed with the military skill sets we’ve been provided, we come with a lot of planning skills that sometimes the civilian areas don’t have,” he said. “We approach things with a different mindset, in terms of planning and operations, that’s helpful in thinking through the problem sets we may encounter.”
Responding to a large-scale disaster at home also assures that Guard members are ready for the warfight, said Burkett, adding it exercises many of those same skill sets in different ways.
Though the Guard has already been busy responding to flooding and tornadoes in the Midwest, that won’t affect things should a hurricane make landfall.
“The severe weather that’s been going on across the United States, that’s not going to affect the response if we had a major hurricane strike,” said Burkett. “We have a pretty in-depth bench that can be called upon if needed.”
But Burkett said he’s OK with the Guard not being needed.
“We’ll see what happens this year,” he said. “Knock on wood, we won’t have any major bad weather up and down the East Coast or out in the Pacific.”