ARLINGTON, Va. – In 1992, Air Force Maj. Gen. Steven Nordhaus was a first lieutenant stationed at Homestead Air Force Base in South Florida when Hurricane Andrew struck, destroying his house and car.
“I know what it means to walk around your house and pick up only about 5% of what you think you have left and work your way out of that and back to a normal life.”
Now, as the National Guard Bureau’s director of operations, he helps ensure the Guard is ready to respond to the 2020 hurricane season.
“We are well-synched and extremely experienced from significant hurricanes over the last few years,” said Nordhaus. “Though conditions change, to include challenges with the COVID-19 virus, the National Guard will be ready to respond.”
For the Guard, hurricane season – June 1 through Nov. 1, when conditions are ideal for hurricanes to form – is part of yearly planning.
“This is one of those things we do every year,” said Army Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris, the adjutant general of the Texas National Guard. “It’s just part of the year. We plan and the force knows who are going to respond.”
Response efforts, however, will be different this year, said Nordhaus. COVID-19 has meant planning for personal protective equipment and other items.
“Social distancing, PPE, screening and testing, sheltering, and other impacts will cause us to change how we respond,” he said. “But we will be ready with our interagency partners to save lives, prevent suffering and mitigate destruction to property in the wake of natural disasters.”
Ensuring PPE is available for responding Guard members will be key, said Air Force Maj. Gen. James Eifert, the adjutant general of the Florida National Guard.
“They will definitely have the PPE required to do the mission,” he said. “We’ve been very insistent through all of our COVID response over the last three months that we will always make sure that those folks are out there with the equipment they need to be able to do the mission they’re required to do.”
COVID-19 has also meant finding ways to maintain social distancing, especially where people need shelter after being evacuated.
“The idea is basically utilizing facilities that allow us to segregate people into rooms, as opposed to in large enclosures like a gymnasium floor with cots,” said Eifert. “[It] is basically looking at hotels, motels, dormitories and those kinds of places that may be vacant either because schools are not in session or because the tourism industry has not responded and there are a lot of vacancies in those facilities.”
However, Eifert stressed, identifying and planning for the use of those locations falls to each state’s department of emergency management, not the Guard.
“I’m only speaking based on my knowledge of their intentions,” he said, adding that Guard hurricane response efforts are always in support of local and state agencies.
Guard members, however, could be on duty at those locations performing COVID-19 screenings, said Eifert.
“We would follow the protocol setup of [the department of emergency management] in terms of screening those people who would be coming in, addressing their needs if they were of the elderly population or population that’s more at risk of COVID disease,” he said.
That would be in addition to performing other missions, such as search and rescue, evacuation, traffic control and debris removal.
“We bring a broad range of skills and processes that we can tailor to just about any type of disaster or emergency response,” said Nordhaus, who noted the Guard this year has already supported the fight against COVID-19 and responded to civil disturbance missions throughout the country.
At peak, that’s meant more than 120,000 Guard members on duty, including those performing COVID-19 and civil disturbance response, other domestic missions and those deployed overseas.
Responding to a hurricane may require activating some Guard members who were assigned to COVID-19 and civil disturbance missions.
“It’s almost impossible to not have people who have done all of those things,” Eifert said.
“No-notice deployment, essentially, is what we’re dealing with,” he said. “We are trying really hard to whittle down the numbers that we currently have on duty to allow our force to reset, anticipating that they will be called up at some point [for natural disaster response].”
And with roughly 450,000 Soldiers and Airmen in the Guard, Nordhaus said the force is in a good position to respond to hurricanes or other large-scale disasters. He said the Emergency Management Assistance Compact allows Guard elements in one state to respond in another state, should they be needed.
“We make sure that it’s a whole-of-government, whole-of-nation response to make sure that we can get the right people and the right equipment to the state to help them out,” he said.
With each hurricane, Nordhaus said he thinks back to 1992 when he was a lieutenant at Homestead Air Force Base.
“I feel every time one of these comes toward the U.S.,” said Nordhaus. “I feel for the impacts toward our citizens.”