By Chuck Cannon, Fort Polk Guardian staff writerApril 11, 2011
FORT POLK, La. - In the event a catastrophic hurricane were to hit New Orleans, such as Katrina did in August 2005, one of the first groups to respond to the emergency will most likely be Fort Polk's 46th Engineer Battalion, 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, as part of the Army's 2nd Security Forces Assistance Brigade.
"We were given the mission last fiscal year and have been working toward that for the past year," said Col. Natalie Pearson, commander, 46th Eng Bn. "We are tasked with responding to disasters - man made or natural - across the United States."
Pearson said that in the event of an emergency, local communities would request assistance from Forces Command, which in turn would then assign the mission to the 46th Eng Bn.
"We take orders from the 1st MEB, but work hand-in-hand with local officials," Pearson said. "We are not there for security enforcement unless directed by the president; we're there to mitigate human suffering."
As part of its training, the 46th Eng Bn recently held an exercise at Fort Polk's Battle Command Training Center that simulated a hurricane emergency near Columbus, Ga. The exercise tested the battalion's ability to conduct command and control, road clearing operations, technical rescues and general logistic support.
"This exercise allows us to test our command and control at multiple echelons," Pearson said. "We can replicate working at higher headquarters and with local officials." The 46th Eng Bn, 1st
MEB, is composed of the following units:
The 178th Vertical Engineer Company, which has three 32-Soldier teams responsible for search and rescue.
The 687th Horizontal Engineer Company, which has heavy equipment and an array of debris and earthmoving equipment, heavy haulers and dump trucks.
The 93rd Vertical Engineer Company, equipped for temporary construction and infrastructure assessments.
The Forward Support Company, which provides food, fuel and maintenance for the battalion.
During the exercise, the battalion cleared roads, reinforced flood walls and levees, rescued trapped victims, inspected infrastructure, supported the Federal Emergency Management Agency's distribution center and helped transport fuel to critical areas.
One of the issues faced by a local population in the event of a hurricane, earthquake or other disaster is a lack of potable water and food. While some might think moving a battalion-sized element into the area would exacerbate that situation, Pearson said that is not the case.
"We don't want to add to the problem," she said. "We will carry enough supplies to get us through a specific period of time."
Pearson said the battalion was also able to exercise staff functions at battalion and company level. "It's a challenge to set up and practice information flow," she said. "With this training, we've been able to exercise our TOC (tactical operations center) functions."
For the past 10 years, training has focused on war fighting tasks with conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Pearson said that training had become old hat to a lot of Soldiers and leaders.
"This mission gets people out of their comfort zone," she said.
"What I've tried to do is encourage our leaders to pick one or two things to improve every day; we've definitely improved."
Pearson said she has incorporated training for the new mission in place of individual training once a quarter. "In August, we've got a mission rehearsal exercise at Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center near Edinburgh, Ind.," she said. "That exercise is in anticipation of picking up the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Reaction Force mission this fall."