By JEAN CLAVETTE GRAVES
Public affairs specialist
FORT POLK, La. — For those of us who live in states adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico, we know hurricane season occurs annually between June and November. Residents of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas are aware that summer brings the possibility of a major storm hitting their shores and disrupting lives.
I remember being stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas when Hurricane Katrina hit eastern Louisiana in August 2005. As I watched the devastation unfold on television, my heart went out to the people who refused to evacuate their home and found themselves stranded on rooftops and bridges. Then less than one month later Hurricane Rita hit the state on its western border. I thought to myself, why are people living there? What makes them want to continue facing the destruction and devastation Mother Nature throws at them? Fast-forward 15 years and I am a proud resident of the state of Louisiana.
After Fort Riley, we moved to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, Fort Carson, Colorado, and in 2012, we landed at Fort Polk. My Family loved the people, culture and climate so much we decided to stay in the Fort Polk area when my husband retired and we have no intention of leaving any time soon.
Based on what we already knew about hurricanes, once we began to settle in, one of the first things we did was start to take heed of weather patterns in the gulf and try to prepare for potential storms by keeping extra water, canned food, filled gas tanks, a generator and propane in the event of lost power or water. But after experiencing my first hurricane last week, I now know you can never truly be prepared for that level of chaos.
I work at the Fort Polk Public Affairs Office as a public affairs specialist. One aspect of my job is crisis communication and over the years I’ve participated in several full-scale exercises and a few real-world incidents that require me to work as a member of the crisis action team in the Warrior Operations Center.
Last Wednesday, Aug. 26, started like most days. My husband, who also works at Fort Polk in emergency services, left for work at 7:30 a.m. and because of an approaching hurricane the crisis action team began 24-hour operations. I was scheduled to begin my shift at midnight. My son and I decided to pick up a few supplies to add to our storm preparation kit when my husband called and asked me to pack a bag for him. He said the way things were looking, he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to come home for a few days. This worried me because we were all holding out hope the storm would weaken and the path would change, but with each passing hour it was evident that Hurricane Laura was bearing down on our location and strengthening as it approached the shores of Cameron Parish.
I’ll admit I started to freak out a little. My husband, as a cop, was running around Fort Polk making the necessary preparations to help keep the post safe, and probably wouldn’t be home that night. I was supposed to work at midnight and my son, at almost 17 years old, refused to come to work with me or to go to a friend’s house. He said he needed to stay home to take care of the pets and protect our home. Worried as I was about leaving him alone, I didn’t have the patience or the energy to argue with him. By noon, Vernon Parish had already put out a 10 p.m. curfew and by 5 p.m. the electricity went out temporarily as the first storm bands began to batter the area.
By Wednesday afternoon the commanding general issued a restricted movement order to all Fort Polk residents and it was determined that to safely change shifts I would need to arrive at 9 p.m. and sit tight at the emergency operations center until the hurricane ended. I stayed until 2 p.m.
Upon arriving for my shift, the place was buzzing with nervous energy and focused tension. Briefings were being conducted and the installation was as prepared as possible for what was expected to be a record-breaking storm. An inventory of generators, fuel and a variety of other supplies was taken. Crisis action team members were anxiously discussing the potential outcomes for the installation and everyone was worried about the Soldiers and Families living on post, not to mention the rotational unit that had been transported to solid structure buildings to ride out the storm. I tried not to think about my kid at home alone and my husband running around post as the storm crept its way north to Vernon Parish.
The crisis action team is composed of individuals from all installation directorates and units. Our jobs are to work together to anticipate and solve problems that arise when there is a crisis. As a public affairs specialist, it’s my job to communicate to the public before, during and after the situation to prevent panic and to keep people informed and safe. Phones rang through the night as Families called looking for a safe haven for themselves and their pets, to report downed trees, power lines and damage to their homes.
At one point I ran outside, during a brief moment of calm, which I later learned was when the eye of the storm passed overhead. The commanding general was outside and yelled, “Jean where are you going?” As I began to say, “to check on my car, sir,” Reveille sounded and I went to the position of attention. Brig. Gen. Frank said, “the flags not up, hurry, check on your car and get back inside, the storm isn’t over yet.”
During that brief exchange and my short trip to see my car in the still dark pre-dawn hours, I saw downed trees and branches all over the parking lot and surrounding the headquarters building where the Warrior Operations Center is housed. I realized then if I was running around outside, others might be tempted to do so as well, so I drafted this message to help keep our Soldiers and Families safe:
“Fort Polk residents, as the sun rises you may be tempted to go outside and assess your property and potential damages. Please remember we are on a restricted movement order until 2 p.m. this afternoon. Stay off the roads to allow our first responders and public works maintenance crews to get around to assist those in need. If you leave your residence please note we are still under weather advisories (wind, flash flood, hurricane warnings), there are downed power-lines, trees and flooded areas. If you find a problem that needs to be addressed please contact the STORM-HOTLINE phone number at 531-7157 so our damage assessment teams and Corvias can provide assistance.”
After the sun came up and throughout the rest of my shift the phones rang and the crisis action team began gathering information about damages and figuring out what to do next. Fortunately, many resources were pre-staged and ready to be deployed where needed. A plan had been de eveloped and teams got busy implementing those plans to get the installation up and running as quickly as possible.
The past week has been a blur, my first shift was 14 hours and there were members of the team who worked longer than that. Call center staffers worked close to 48 hours straight in the days leading up to and immediately following the storm. As I write this recap, I’m working another 12-hour shift and until power has been restored completely we will continue to operate in the Warrior Operations Center to support the community during this emergency.
Throughout the past week as a need was identified, members of the crisis action team developed solutions. Unit liaison officers would coordinate for Soldier support and the team worked together on behalf of the safety and welfare of those who live and work on Fort Polk. Soldiers from the 519th Military Police Battalion responded to emergencies, manned access control points and directed traffic at the fuel pumps. The 46th Engineers conducted road clearance and debris disposal. Pilots and crews of the 1st Battalion, 5th Aviation Regiment provided aerial support for damage assessment and medical evacuation. Operations Group delivered ice and helped with clean-up efforts. Third Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, provided logistical support with transportation of people and equipment, and dining facility operations. During the storm they managed the safe haven for residents and their pets.
I think we were very lucky here at the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk. During the wee hours as Hurricane Laura approached, many feared the destruction would be much worse than it ended up being. Thankfully there were no deaths or injuries to any of the Soldiers, civilians or Family members who were on the installation when Laura hit. The electricity went out for an extended period of time, but due to the forethought of the command, energy crews were staged and started restoration efforts immediately following the storm and within a week most of the electrical grid had been restored.
I had worried all night about my son home alone and later learned he slept through the whole thing. Our house is off post and sustained only minor damage from wind, and my family is safe and survived the harrowing ordeal.
Leading up to and in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura I witnessed many things that made me even more proud of the military community. As the storm bore down, the Fort Polk police were out patrolling the area until wind speeds exceeded 60 miles per hour. The JRTC and Fort Polk commanding general was on patrol with the 519th Military Police commander before and after the storm to assess the situation. The installation staff put their own Families, homes and property on hold to serve on the crisis action team and continue to do so days later.
As I look around the installation a week after the storm, I’m amazed and grateful for the hard work our Soldiers have done to clean up Fort Polk. We are not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. Our friends and neighbors in the surrounding communities are still struggling without power, water and infrastructure. Some of our Soldiers and civilian employees have destroyed homes and continue to suffer through the heat.