September 12, 2008

Response for Gustav and Hanna teaches valuable lessons

By Maj. Cotton Puryear
Virginia Guard Public Affairs

The Virginia Department of Military Affairs carefully managed the response to Hurricane Gustav in early September to ensure that Virginia would have the necessary resources in case Tropical Storm Hanna created any situations were DMA support would be needed. Senior leaders of the DMA and the Joint Operations Center were in close contact with National Guard Bureau as both storms were tracked.

“National Guard Bureau is concerned about Hanna, and Virginia’s participation in supporting the response for Gustav will be tempered by the uncertainty of that storm,” said Col. Daryl Francis, chief of the Joint Staff of the Virginia National Guard. “No forces from Virginia will be committed that will affect our response until the situation becomes more clear.”

According to Col. Rob McMillin, director of joint operations for the Virginia National Guard, the Virginia Guard sent nine Soldiers and Airmen to Louisiana to work in their joint operations center, and they are scheduled to return to Virginia Sept. 15. Six Virginia Guardsmen went on duty at National Guard Bureau to assist with disaster response planning.

Approximately 400 members of the DMA were authorized state active duty by the Virginia Governor Timothy M. Kaine for possible mission support related to Tropical Storm Hanna. Soldiers from the Virginia National Guard and members of the Virginia Defense Force began movement Sept. 5 to Fort Pickett where they were on standby.

Even though the DMA did not receive any missions, the response to Tropical Storm Hanna provided valuable training.

“We exercised our alert procedures and exercised our staff processes,” McMillin said. “We safely and successfully moved more than 400 people around Virginia and some outside of Virginia. Through the entire event, command and control of all the units that were called on duty was very well executed.”

The response validated many parts of the current response plan, McMillin said. Some shortfalls in resources have been identified, and the overall response plan is being modified based on the lessons learned. Some changes are being immediately put into effect in the Joint Operations Center now, and the response to Hanna has also brought about changes for the hurricane response exercise scheduled for June 2009.

The DMA activated a large portion of its Incident Response Force Package that is prepared to provide security response and evacuation support, McMillin said.

The majority of the IRFP comes from the Lynchburg-based 1st Battalion, 116th Brigade Combat Team. Soldiers from company-level armories in Lexington, Bedford and Christiansburg were part of the response force.

According to Maj. Scott Smith, commander of 1st Battalion, the IRFP was equipped with transport trucks and has personnel who could conduct ground evacuation operations or transport supplies. The unit was also ready to provide a force of about 130 Soldiers to act as a security response force to work with state police or other local law enforcement agencies.

After sending out the alert at about 5 p.m. Sept. 4, the battalion had assembled more than 300 Soldiers at their respective armories by 8 a.m. the next morning. From there, they moved by bus and tactical vehicle to stage at Fort Pickett.

For about 200 Soldiers in the battalion, this was their first drill weekend back since returning from duty in Iraq and Kuwait. Soldiers from 1st Battalion were organized into platoon-sized elements for service with 2nd Squadron, 183rd Cavalry and 3rd Battalion, 116th Brigade Combat Team.

In February, the battalion was in a similar situation with Soldiers being called to duty after their first drill weekend after a deployment. After conducting their Freedom Salute to honor their service in Kosovo, about 100 Soliders from the battalion reported for state active duty to support fire fighting efforts in Roanoke and Bedford.

Even though the unit didn’t receive any missions, the preparation efforts provided valuable training. “I think we worked out a lot of the bugs and addressing the way we organize into teams and as a unit to provide support,” Smith said. “We will be much better prepared in the event we are called out again.”

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