Army North stood ready to help take wind out of Hurricane Isaac's sails
September 11, 2012
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas - With only weeks behind them since they wrapped up a huge national disaster exercise, service members and civilians from U.S. Army North geared up again and deployed to conduct response and recovery operations for Hurricane Isaac.
Elements from U.S. Army North deployed Aug. 27 and 28 to preposition at various locations around Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to support local, state and federal authorities in operations such as medical evacuation and treatment, logistics support, transportation, communications and many others.
In Army North's 24-hour Combined Operations and Intelligence Center, planners tracked Hurricane Isaac as it dodged past Puerto Rico and Florida before finally settling on a familiar path into Louisiana via New Orleans.
Team members from Army North's Defense Coordinating Element Region II, based out of New York, pre-deployed to both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in preparation of the storms advance through the region Aug. 23. Their mission was to begin the planning process in the event federal forces were requested to provide support following the heavy rain and winds in the region.
Gen. Charles Jacoby Jr., commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, said they were ready to provide support if called upon.
The storm was enormous and unpredictable, losing strength as it made landfall Aug. 28 before being downgraded to a tropical storm. However, it still caused flooding, damage through its high winds and flooding from the rains in its wake.
The quick response of all agencies involved allowed all levels involved to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. Core members of Joint Task Force 51 from Army North deployed with emergency response vehicles and Sentinel communications trucks. Operational assets such as helicopters from Company C "Eagle Dustoff," 7th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky., allowed responders to capture imagery for damage assessment and to be used for possible aero-medical missions.
The Army aviators stood ready to support federal and state partners, said Capt. Xeriqua
Garfinkel, public affairs officer for the 159th CAB.
"The crews did a phenomenal job executing this support mission in a very short amount of time, a tribute to the discipline and training conducted daily within the 159th CAB and the 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky.," said Garfinkel.
Army North's defense coordinating elements deployed strategically to key hubs of support near potential landfall sites and coordinated support with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
This meant key alignment and planning between Regions I, II, IV, VI and VII as well as arranging for support from Title 32 National Guard and Reserve units and additional agencies around the parts of Louisiana in Isaac's path.
Each of the Army North defense coordinating elements are responsible for a number of states inside its area of responsibility and are co-located with the ten FEMA regions. Each region has a defense coordinating officer, who handles the defense coordinating elements from the federal government under the command of that region and its respective DCO.
Among the regions threatened by Isaac, Region IV was first up as Florida seemed to be Isaac's likely target in the beginning. However, each region prepared to provide support for their neighboring regions in the event the hurricane passed them by.
Army North's Defense Coordinating Element Region IV, based in Atlanta, and commanded by Col. Barrett Holmes, deployed to Florida's State Emergency Operations Center in the Florida Capital Center Office Complex in Tallahassee, Fla., from Aug. 24-31, to support the Republican National Convention and to provide Department of Defense Support for Hurricane (and Tropical Storm) Isaac.
Elements of Region VI also had a full plate to handle during the support provided for Isaac.
"I didn't witness much of the flooding, power outages and damage in the south eastern coastal Parishes firsthand, but I gained much situational awareness by being able to sit in on the governor's daily situational update meetings /Unified Coordination Group meetings," said Col. Bryan Newkirk, Region VI defense coordinating officer. The DCO and his team were co-located with the Federal Coordinating Officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
This storm was very different from Katrina, or even Gustav, the most recent hurricane to hit Louisiana, he said. Although Isaac was a Category I hurricane, much of the damage resulted when it came and stood still over the coastal Louisiana parishes for several hours.
With many areas in Southeast Louisiana at or below sea level, the ground already saturated and lakes/rivers above normal water levels before the storm, flooding in addition to hurricane force winds had a significant impact on coastal Parishes. The wind damage resulted in hundreds of thousands of people losing power and 4,000 to 5,000 evacuating their homes because of flooding.
"It seems like every storm has its own personality, and each one requires a slightly different response," Newkirk added. "It was very encouraging the way the state met the needs of the people. They didn't need a lot of federal assistance. Perhaps the biggest needs were prepackaged meals FEMA provided that the Louisiana National Guard distributed at Points of Distribution throughout southeastern Louisiana."
Newkirk acknowledged further how well-prepared Louisiana was in the face of another hurricane-related disaster.
"The state had a very robust response plan in place and executed it excellently," he said. "The state and the National Guard were very well prepared. It was during the Governor's Unified Command Group meeting when news came of the impending Tangipahoa dam failure. During the meeting, the Governor and his staff began immediate crisis action planning to reposition buses, search and rescue teams, and other state assets to assist in a local evacuation that had already begun.
Although the dam never failed, he said the governor and his planners did an excellent job of shifting additional National Guard and Department of Transportation assets to what had quickly become the main effort.
Newkirk went on to say that their partners needed minimal support from the federal military.
"We coordinated for the Civil Air Patrol to take aerial photographs to assist the state with damage assessments requirements," he continued. "CAP continuously flew missions."
Their aerial imagery mission in support of Louisiana's damage assessment efforts ended Sept. 5, with more than 1,341 products (pictures and video) being provided to the state of Louisiana over the course of their mission.
"We also coordinated the staging of a small number of federal military helicopters at Fort Rucker, Ala., and the use of Fort Polk, La. to stage FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Teams in case needed for the response," Newkirk added.
In addition, there were joint regional medical planners integrated with the state and federal Health and Human Services planners. They worked together to help evacuate and care for special needs populations -- people in hospitals or nursing homes who may not be able to self-evacuate or who may need medical help along the way.
"In one case, we helped coordinate temporary housing for about 125 nursing home residents on Belle Chasse Naval Air Station, Joint Reserve Base," Newkirk said.
While they had a big job to do and stayed very involved, Newkirk said he doesn't want people to think they were stealing the show in terms of the work that was getting done and efforts being made.
"What we did was nowhere near the scope and scale of what state and the Louisiana National Guard did," Newkirk said. "But the state and FEMA welcomed us to be part of the team, and just simply knowing that we were there to help the citizens if they needed help is very rewarding."
Other elements from Army North also participated in Hurricane Isaac operations. An advance element of Army North's Defense Coordinating Element Region I, based in Boston, Mass., deployed to Clanton, Ala., in support of federal response and recovery efforts. Army North's DCE Region VI, based in Denton, Texas, deployed to FEMA's Baton Rouge Incident Operations Facility in Baton Rouge, La., and to Camp Beauregard, La., from Aug. 25 -- Sept. 4 to support the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, and FEMA.
Members of Army North's Task Force 51, an all-hazards task force based at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, also deployed to Camp Beauregard, La. Army North's DCE Region VII, based in Kansas City, Mo., deployed to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Pearl, Miss., and worked with FEMA's National Incident Management Assistance Team (White) and FEMA Region IV.
"I'm proud of the immense teamwork displayed on such short notice between local, state and federal responders," Jacoby said later during a mission update.
While the tremendous effort and work was appreciated by many, it seemed as if Isaac was giving up in the face of such resolve as the hurricane deteriorated to a tropical storm once more and was reduced to high winds and greatly increased rainfall over the regions throughout its initial path.