The devastation and unpredictable damage of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year caused Army leaders to take a hard look at relief effort procedures.
Hurricane response became a timely topic as Hurricane Michael made landfall on the Florida Panhandle Oct. 10.
After Maria, one objective became clear: interagency cooperation between the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Defense is essential in disaster response.
“If you spend all your time and energy on unity of command, it’s wasted energy,” said Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, U.S. Army North (Fifth Army) commander at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. “What we need to spend time and energy on is unity of effort.
“The military is only part of the equation,” the general added. “We’re not going to have unity of command between all the people doing search and rescue.”
Army leaders and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen discussed the joint efforts necessary to respond to damages caused by major storms during a panel at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual meeting in Washington Oct. 9.
Michael was the strongest ever hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle and then headed towards Georgia and South Carolina.
Major storms and wildfires affected more than 46 million Americans in 2017, costing $300 billion in damages. In September, Hurricane Florence caused catastrophic flooding in the Carolinas and Hurricane Lane pummeled Hawaii, pouring record amounts of rain in August.
“These types of disasters demand a response beyond what any one agency can handle,” Nielsen said. “They simply require all hands on deck.”
Should communities become impacted in Michael’s aftermath, one measure that could help aid the agencies’ unity of effort is the establishment of dual-status commanders, or military leaders that may serve in a federal and state capacity simultaneously.
The dual-status commander, said Maj. Gen. Giselle Wilz, Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic Division commander, works directly for the state’s governor and adjutant general while also serving as a member of the federal chain of command under the president and defense secretary’s authority.
“The role of the dual-status commander is that he works for two different principals through two different chains of command,” said Wilz, who served as the lead on a National Guard team that traveled to Puerto Rico shortly after Maria made landfall. “But ultimately his role is to facilitate the unity of state and federal forces in achieving dominance of justice in disaster response.”
Brig. Gen. Dustin Shultz, commander of the 1st Mission Support Command, a Puerto Rico-based Army Reserve unit, said her team built a special task force when communications on the island broke down during the storm. The hurricane wiped out as much as 85 percent of communications. Shultz said she had to resort to communicating over an AM radio station to check the status of unit members and their families.
“They really had to push the formations and make sure they were part of the coordination and unity of effort with other agencies and units,” Shultz said.
In order to link senior leaders in her unit with the Guard, she had to use runners. Some of the other challenges the 1st Mission Support Command faced included mud penetrating into fuel trucks and managing the distribution of funds toward resources.
Following Maria’s onslaught, the Corps had to provide 60,000 pieces of temporary roofing consisting of a blue tarp-like material, 51 million pieces of building materials, 60,000 power folds, and 8,400 miles of wire -- and all of this had to be transported by sea, costing about $3.4 billion.
With so many lives at stake and a heavy cost in the balance, there is a fine line disaster response planners must walk, Buchanan said.
“We’ve got to balance anticipation with patience,” Buchanan said. “Our culture tells us to rush toward the sound of the guns. But if in this world you don’t have some patience and we pull forces in, we can cause many more problems.”