NEWS | Nov. 18, 2008

Cal Guard discovers parallels in Ukraine's disaster relief efforts

By 2nd Lt. Will Martin California National Guard

SACRAMENTO - For California National Guardsmen, the annual fire season has rendered moot the question of whether natural disasters will strike the state. No longer do they ask "if," but only "when" and "where."

On the eve of Vigilant Guard '09, the National Guard's weeklong emergency-response training exercise, Cal Guardsmen learned their Ukrainian counterparts face a similar burden on their own native soil.

Each summer in Western Ukraine, floods hammer the region surrounding the Carpathian Mountains, and this July especially heavy rains brought a record deluge, causing the worst financial damage in more than 100 years.

On Nov. 12, at the Joint Force Headquarters here in Sacramento, Ukrainian delegates prepared for Vigilant Guard by briefing Maj. Gen. William H. Wade II, the California National Guard's adjutant general, and other key leadership on the difficult lessons gleaned from the recent catastrophic floods.

"The damage was equal to approximately one billion U.S. dollars," said Maj. General Vasyl Kvashuk, director of the Ukrainian Army's Civil Protection Department, through a translator. "In my opinion, people were not informed [in a timely manner] about the flooding."

Kvashuk said many Ukrainian officials failed to disseminate information about the threat of floods, and more importantly, "how to behave" once heavy waters struck the villages at the base of the mountains. 

"We lost 40 lives," said Kvashuk. "We lost both children and adult persons during the flood."

Many well-meaning citizens, said Kvashuk, actually caused further damage to life and property due to ignorance on how to respond properly. In one instance, a man overpopulated his small boat with neighbors, ultimately capsizing and drowning all eight passengers.

Ukraine is one of two nations participating in the California National Guard's Peace to State Partnership Program, the other being Nigeria.

Like California, Ukrainian officials are learning to deal with their natural disasters through "real-world emergencies."

"It's not (ideal) to learn from your current emergencies," said Kvashuk, but also noted that the Transcarpathian region, the nation's most frequently flooded area, reacted best to the severe torrent in July.

In short, they've embraced the inevitability of the floods as an opportunity to improve their responsiveness.

It is that desire to bolster their readiness that brought the Ukrainians and a host of other nations to California to participate in Vigilant Guard, which by simulating a major earthquake offers participants a close-to-real-world training environment.

"We initiated a partnership with the National Guard of California 15 years ago," said Kvashuk, expressing his gratitude for the training benefits generated by the alliance. "We have learned much from our partnership."