By U.S. Navy Lt. Haider Mullick
RALEIGH, N.C. - After two weeks of preparing and providing relief to communities devastated by Hurricane Florence in North Carolina, active duty Soldiers are winding down rescue efforts while remaining ready to meet federal and local needs.
At the peak of the response, more than 12,000 National Guard and federal military personnel supported the hurricane response efforts, rescuing people and pets, transporting first responders, and delivering food and water.
Under the framework of state joint force commands established in North and South Carolina, Active and Reserve component military forces supported the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state authorities to respond to the needs of citizens affected by the storm.
Federal forces were prepared to assist both North and South Carolina, said Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, commander of U.S. Army North and U.S. Northern Command's Joint Forces Land Component Command.
"We brought together all the resources of the federal side of the military-Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps," he explained.
Army North's higher headquarters, U.S. Northern Command, is the Department of Defense synchronizer for Defense Support of Civil Authorities and brought additional capabilities and capacity to the hurricane response efforts. These capabilities included communication support for landlines and cell phone towers, medical units, and five-ton troop transportation trucks with high suspension to maneuver flood waters.
Additionally, a Navy surface group led by the USS Kearsarge departed Norfolk, Va., for the open seas, then followed the storm toward the shore and postured near the coast to be ready to provide support off shore.
Acting on lessons learned from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, U.S Army North became fully engaged in response efforts for Hurricane Florence before the storm made landfall, building logistical networks to facilitate rapid lifesaving and sustaining operations.
"While we acknowledge that every natural disaster is distinct, we have learned that coming in early helps tremendously to ensure we are not late to need," Buchanan said.
The Army North staff worked closely with forces commanded by Maj. Gen. James Ernst of the North Carolina National Guard, who was designated as the dual status commander by the Secretary of Defense. "It's my job to coordinate the efforts of both the North Carolina National Guard and the active duty units that come in," said Ernst.
The 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command from Fort Bragg commanded key units such as the post's ad hoc "Task Force Truck" and the 101st Sustainment Brigade as they conducted high water rescue missions across North Carolina's coastal towns including flood-ravaged Lumberton and Wilmington. Soldiers in tactical vehicles helped rescue displaced residents in waist-high water.
Soldiers from the 74th Composite Truck Company, 129th Combat Support Sustainment Battalion, 101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) from Fort Campbell, Ky., conducted high water rescues in Lumberton from Sept. 17-21. "It felt really good to help people," said Spc. Mathew Perkins.
Other members of the unit also shared their stories after returning to Fort Bragg, N.C., after transitioning remaining missions to National Guard units.
"My job was to keep all our Army vehicles and the vehicles of the [North Carolina National] Guard operational, and we did that," explained Spc. Rochelle Llorico. "We saved lives, and the support from the people was overwhelming."
Staff Sgt. Jeremy Allen remembered one family - a single mom with two young teen daughters. "They decided to stay because they loved their home. It was everything they had," he said. "We gave them some supplies, and they were resilient. Their story is the American story. We're stronger when we help each other."
Sgt. Demetri Robinson recalled rescuing three men a cat. "They were so glad we also saved the cat," he said. "The people are very grateful, and we're all united in saving lives."
In South Carolina, the state established a dual status command headed by Maj. Gen. R. Van McCarty. The National Guard postured assets state-wide to ensure county emergency planners had resources available for whatever was needed to assist their citizens through the aftereffects of the storm.
Even as the federal military returns some capabilities to home station to resume other DoD missions, Army North remains vigilant, Buchanan said. The command is monitoring continued flooding in the Carolinas as well as two weather systems in the Pacific and four in the Atlantic.
The U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico remain vulnerable following hurricanes Irma and Maria last year, so Army North has prepositioned communications equipment to be postured for the 2018 storm season.
While the primary mission of Northern Command is defending the American homeland, helping Americans hit by natural disasters in their greatest time of need will always be a sacred responsibility for the DoD, Buchanan said.
"You know we in the Army have deployed all over the world - Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Honduras," he said. "But it is uniquely gratifying when you serve fellow Americans at home."