FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (April 11, 2013) -- It doesn't matter if mankind is facing a zombie apocalypse, a massive hurricane or a catastrophic earthquake -- disasters of natural or unnatural origin still need to be prepared for.
"Do I have a zombie survival kit?" asked Max Brooks, the guest speaker of a Hurricane Rehearsal of Concept event, hosted by U.S. Army North (Fifth Army), April 9-11. "Sure!" answered the author of "The Zombie Survival Guide" and "World War Z."
"It's my earthquake kit -- it's the exact same thing."
Although it's not a typical question to ask, it is certainly a viable one for those in the business of keeping Americans safe and secure in the homeland. Such is the case for the Department of Defense and Interagency partners who gathered together at Fort Sam Houston, where they brought together military and federal, local and state agencies that would be tasked with responding to a hurricane disaster.
The concept of the rehearsal is tailored to provide guidance and input from all attendees and identify issues -- as well as find solutions -- during a joint effort.
Brooks credits "zombies" for bringing attention to preparedness in general and noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even has a "Zombie Plan."
"This is the first time I've ever seen the federal government actually do something cool," he said, in speaking of the process used by all levels of government in responding to emergencies and disasters. And while he got more than a few laughs from that, he truly meant what he said.
"For the first time, you have young people being interested in being prepared, being 'tricked into' taking care of themselves, really, because even if the zombie apocalypse does not happen, they will be ready for the next hurricane or next disaster," Brooks said.
He certainly didn't mean tricked in a bad way either, but there is something about the idea of facing down a horde of zombies that can seem more heroic and exciting than dealing with the realities of flooding, loss of power and damages from a super storm. It's this hook, he said, that makes the mission of Army North and its partners to be something that average citizens can relate to.
Brooks said he has spoken at the Naval War College twice already on the same subject.
"We are teaching people what to do when the lights go out," he said enthusiastically in explaining that he feels it is his job not only to entertain but to educate as well. "If I can get people thinking, even just briefly, what it takes to keep the lights on and what it takes from the people who keep the lights on, then I will have done my job."
Many of the major agencies that are part of the Northern Command's Joint Forces Land Component Command, or JFLCC, as well as several federal, state and local partners, took advantage of the opportunity to talk in an open forum on how their "piece" of the disaster response operations would be conducted. They included lessons learned from the previous year's experiences, particularly with Hurricane Sandy.
"Our processes that we've used in the past haven't always supported getting things done on time," said Ralph Laurie, Defense Logistics Agency. "During Hurricane Sandy, we got a little out of our comfort zone, but that was what our director was demanding."
Laurie explained that the level of product support, such as fuel, water, machinery, etc., was unprecedented during Hurricane Sandy, and it showed their capability in leaning forward to deliver what was needed. Responsiveness, he added, trumps all and was "the coin of the realm" and will be in the future.
A phase-by-phase hurricane scenario was a big part of the exercise. It involved two storm systems building to hurricane level and the potential landfall at Gulfport, Miss., and Norfolk, Va., which produced corresponding flood and wind damage in each region. Each phase corresponds with different actions required by the JFLCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- from the shaping of the storm, to anticipating direction and impact, to response once the storm or storms hit, to operations during the incident, to providing stability and ending with transition back to state and local agencies and the subsequent support.
Maj. Gen. Perry Wiggins, deputy commanding general for operations, Army North, introduced the scenario overview and broad topics discussion by reminding everyone that each person there had something to learn -- and they also had something to share.
"The most important thing about hurricane season, personally, is relationships," Wiggins said. "When a hurricane happens, sometimes there is confusion that surrounds it. And, there are people who will be there who have experience with that and understand what to do -- those people are you."
Wiggins also noted that representatives were present from all agencies and that it is a total government effort.
"We in this uniform, we are the support team," he said. "Although the military is well-known for leading the way, here, they are one of the pillars of support to the disaster response agencies."
A hurricane is only one of the many incidents that may occur at any given time; beginning in June, the season approaches when they are most likely to form and strike.
This year in particular is projected to be an above-average year in terms of activity, according the extended range forecast of Atlantic seasonal hurricane activity and landfall strike probability for 2013 from William Gray, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Atmospheric Science, head of the Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University.
Since it can happen across a vast expanse of the country, those gathered said they felt it is important to ensure exercises of this type are used to make the most of adapting new strategies and being as absolutely prepared as possible for almost any problem out there.
There really are no more local problems, Brooks explained, in talking about his perspective as a writer. People saw it after Hurricane Katrina. They saw it after the Fukushima incident in Japan.
Brooks said he saw it personally following Hurricane Sandy that these are not just problems dealt with by "everyone else." These are things that can happen to anyone and people need to see that it is a very thin line between safety and danger.
"Most people don't really understand what separates us from the abyss," Brooks said. "You are -- you are the people who separate us from the abyss. That's why I am so humbled to be here, and it is why I am so thankful to get to listen to what you do and watch what you do."