FORT POLK, La. — As Hurricane Laura strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico, part of my job was to update the JRTC and Fort Polk website (home.army.mil/polk) with the latest tracking map and forecast from the Weather Channel to keep the community as informed as possible of the events about to unfold.
I continued working until the power went out and then spent the rest of the night praying that my home, family, friends and pets would survive the direct hit barreling up La. Hwy 171. It was a long, scary night and there were times the wind blew so hard, the roof creaked, and I was afraid we were going to lose our porch.
I finally was able to get a quick power nap about 5 a.m. Thursday morning when my wife woke up and took overwatch duties. When I woke, it had passed and was heading north still as a category 1 hurricane. I grabbed my son and went out to survey the damage.
You know this part. There were trees down and debris was scattered throughout the neighborhood. Luckily, there was no tree damage to the house. Several trees had come down at just the right angle to miss the house, but the wind had damaged the roof.
We were also trapped. Looking down the road in both directions, I could see trees blocking the road both ways — but not for long. A group of neighbors with chain saws, tractors, bobcats and other equipment got after it and the road was cleared within hours. Neighbors were checking on each other and willing to lend a hand where needed … and boy, were they needed.
The Sunday after the hurricane, I was tasked to man the Warrior Operations Center for the Public Affairs Office at the JRTC and Fort Polk headquarters building. Every directorate had someone staffing and representing their respective organizations, 24/7, until power restoration. These are people with their own problems and damage that needed to be taken care of, but they put that aside to provide the greatest disaster response I have personally seen.
Fort Polk’s command teams, headed by Brig. Gen. Patrick D. Frank, JRTC and Fort Polk commander, and Col. Ryan K. Roseberry, commander, U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Polk, were ever present, collecting information and developing a plan for the installation to recover from the massive damage taken during the storm. The main priority was to care for Soldiers, including those here on rotation, and the Families, retirees and Department of the Army civilian workforce.
Within hours, units had been mobilized to help clean trees and debris from the housing areas, restoring access for repair crews and setting the stage for the return of power on the installation. The latest information on the recovery and plans for what was to come next were ubiquitous. If you were able to keep up with Facebook, all users emails and the Digital Garrison app, you had the latest information at your fingertips.
The progress made was phenomenal. Streets were cleared, ice and fuel were available, and the commissary was open and fully stocked. All of that took the community pulling together. Stories were told of commanders and command sergeants major out in the heat with the Soldiers they lead manning chainsaws and helping clear debris. That is what I call leading from the front.
A walking town hall of the housing areas through every neighborhood on the installation was performed with command teams talking to residents, making sure damage was noted for future repairs, listening to challenges residents were facing and ensuring they knew command was aware and working their problems.
As I walked with my assigned team taking pictures and documenting the event for historical and news purposes, I saw Soldiers getting after it, but there were also residents pitching in and helping. They were picking up debris, raking and checking on each other to help get Fort Polk back to normal. At one stop, I saw a resident spouse and her daughter handing out cookies and ice water to Soldiers working her neighborhood. Community.
As I traveled throughout the area, I saw neighbors working at fire stations handing out ice, water and meals to those in need. I drove through neighborhoods in our surrounding communities and was stunned by the damage the storm left, but everywhere I looked, neighbors were helping neighbors. Local stores were open and providing needed items like ice and food.
On Sept. 4, a Resiliency Center was established at Siegfried Youth Activity Center offering access to free WiFi, air conditioning, shower facilities and ice for Soldiers, Families and DA civilian employees who live off the installation.
On Sunday, Sept. 6, I went to the commissary to pick up a few items. Like everyone else, we lost all the meat in our freezers and needed to make a supply run.
As I passed Siegfried, I saw the distribution point set up by the Red Cross. It was staffed with volunteers. A co-worker was on hand directing traffic and when I went through the line, I saw the garrison commander’s wife, Rhonda Roseberry, filling boxes for volunteers to give out. When I got to the head of the line, who did I see but Col. Jody Dugai, commander of Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital, pitching in.
The Red Cross kits included shovels, rakes, tarps, gloves, flashlights and cleaning supplies, including hand-held scrub brushes, scrub brooms, a squeegee, garbage bags, masks and hand sanitizer. In total, the Red Cross handed out 302 full kits and 17 partial kits.
Fifteen volunteers manned the bulwarks, along with a retinue of Red Cross employees, and Col. Roseberry was there all day, pitching in and ensuring folks had the supplies they needed to help them through the disaster.
My family is lucky. We can cook a hot meal; we have a generator and fans. We have access to ice and, while we were without electricity in the house until Sept. 8, my shop next door had power and a working refrigerator. The damage we took, while significant, could have been a lot worse.
But the greatest blessing I will take from this event: Knowing I live in a community that cares about its people. Community used to be a just where I lived, but it has a different meaning to me now. Community is a team of folks pitching in to solve problems and help those in need.