June 6th, 2009 15:05 EST
FEMA: National Guard Essential To Hurricane Response
by Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
National Guard Bureau
6/5/2009 - WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- The National Guard is essential to hurricane response, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency told lawmakers here June 5.
And the National Guard and U.S. Northern Command stand ready to support civil authorities in the 2009 hurricane season, added NORTHCOM`s director of operations, Army Maj. Gen. Frank Grass.
"The National Guard is a key component of any state governor`s ability to respond to a variety of disasters," said Craig W. Fugate, the FEMA administrator. "They are a force multiplier for the ... state responders. [The National Guard] is a key component of our national defense strategy."
Mr. Fugate said one of the first visits he made after he was sworn in May 19 was to Gen. Craig R. McKinley, the chief of the National Guard Bureau.
"We have a very strong statewide mutual aid system under [the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, and] we leverage that with the National Guard," Mr. Fugate said.
Mr. Fugate and General Grass testified in a standing-room only hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery.
The National Guard is "the first responders in support of [civil authorities] and the governor, so they`re going to be there first," General Grass said. "It behooves us at NORTHCOM to understand their capability and look at their response times, because if they`re successful at the local level, that`s less federal assets we have to put forward."
National Guard, NORTHCOM and FEMA leaders were joined by state and county officials at a hurricane workshop in South Carolina earlier this year, the general told lawmakers.
"We walked through ... how the locals would be responding, how the state would respond [and] then the National Guard gave us a lay-down by state of where their shortfalls were," General Grass said. "Then FEMA came in and explained what capabilities it may be requesting.
"The biggest shortfall this current hurricane season probably is in the brigade structure of the National Guard, because of the number of brigades deployed," he said. "Even though it`s a shortfall in certain regions, it`s not a shortfall across the nation. It`s a matter of reallocating forces, and the National Guard is working very closely ... with the state adjutants general to identify those forces that can fill those shortfalls."
General Grass said a similar situation exists with rotor-wing aircraft, where a shortage in a particular state can be ameliorated with equipment from other regions.
A third challenge is aeromedical evacuation, General Grass said.
"We`ve improved greatly since last hurricane season on the ability to identify patients, ... move [them], how to receive them," he said.
Defense and federal coordinating officers are working with local officials to improve communication before a storm.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, a subcommittee member from Louisiana, directed her staff to generate a map showing how many nursing home patients live within 30 miles of the coast.
"I don`t think people realize ... how many people live near the coast," she said, sitting in front of a map showing that almost no area of the coastal Eastern United States has escaped being hit by a hurricane since the mid-19th century. "Not everyone that lives near the coast has an automobile, not everyone is well, not everyone is strong enough or young enough to move out without ... help ... or wealthy enough to afford the several thousand dollars that it costs, at a minimum, to leave your home for several days. I just don`t think people have an idea ... that have not recently gone through what several of our states have gone through."
Any hurricane response will be a joint effort by military forces supporting civilian authorities, General Grass said.
"We`ve looked closely at the active component -- Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard -- to see where their assets would be available,"
General Grass said.
National Guard Bureau and NORTHCOM leaders talk daily to coordinate efforts, he said in an interview after his testimony.
"Between Northern Command and National Guard Bureau, we`re all watching the continental United States and the states and territories," General Grass said. "If we see something out there, we immediately make contact with each other."
National Guard Bureau`s command center and the NORAD and NORTHCOM command center work together closely, and whenever National Guard forces are deployed domestically, "we`re prepared to back them up," General Grass said. "The key point in this response -- whether it`s a local Guard unit or it`s a federal force being called in because the governor said he has a shortfall -- is that we`re always in support of a civilian agency on the ground that needs help and we owe it to the taxpayers -- to our citizens -- to use the best asset that we have the quickest."
During Hurricane Katrina, General Grass was the deputy director of the Army National Guard. He then served abroad in European Command, returning last year to take up his position at NORTHCOM. That previous hurricane experience plus time abroad has given him a perspective on the nation`s current hurricane preparedness.
"To see the changes, it`s night and day," General Grass said. "NORTHCOM has matured. The Guard has matured in their relationships with the states and with Northern Command. Just the fact that today there are five reserve component general officers serving full time at Northern Command and there are three traditional Army Reserve and Air Guard and Army Guard generals serving at Northern Command - we have a much closer relationship than we have ever had."
The FEMA administration has reached out to the interagency and to the Department of Defense.
"When you look at a total Reserve force of over a million, and the National Guard at more than 460,000 Army and Air Guard members, there`s no reason the National Guard Bureau can`t make that response happen through [emergency management assistance compacts] -- and we would be prepared from Northern Command to step in and help if there were gaps," he said.
As is increasingly the case throughout DOD, NORTHCOM is a truly joint environment, General Grass said.
"I don`t care what uniform you wear or what component you`re with," General Grass said, "your No. 1 mission should be defense of the homeland and providing response capability to the citizens of the United States."