By Joseph Andrew Lee

Before Superstorm Sandy ever made landfall in October 2012, potentially affected states hustled to prepare their respective National Guard units and notify first-responders at the city and county levels.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency made ready thousands of active duty and reserve military forces in locations where they could rapidly deploy. A dual-status commander —a single National Guard flag officer—was placed in charge of both state and federal military forces, while each entity maintained separate and distinct chains of command.

New Jersey’s Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst was designated a forward staging point for relief personnel and supplies, including civilian services under FEMA’s National Response Framework. The USS Wasp Amphibious Ready Group was underway —loaded with U.S. Marines and medical personnel—ready to render additional assistance as needed.

This proactive response was a far cry from the delayed effort by the military during Hurricane Katrina seven years prior. What changed?

“[Katrina] was a complex environment to operate in, and that’s what led to all this legislation, coordination and practice since then,” said Army Major General Charles Gailes, Jr., commander of Task Force 51, U.S. Army North, who was on the ground in Queens, New York, during Hurricane Sandy, working with the federal and state coordinating officers as a senior DoD [Defense Department] representative.

“There was much done after hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, as far as working between the state and federal governments, as well as legislative action such as the Post-Katrina Act and the [National] Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which codified the dual-status commander as customary and normal business.”

These policies built upon previous legislation to expand the scope for defense support to civil authorities. Critics of these policy changes feared their passage might allow the federal government to overstep by using DoD assets in ways that could potentially violate civil liberties. The counterpoint was that these changes would be made prudently to provide the fastest possible response to natural and man-made disasters.

A public tremendously frustrated by the response to Katrina prompted the move.

Reports from the 109th Congress, the White House, federal offices of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office, among others, concluded that the losses caused by Hurricane Katrina and other disasters were due, in part, to organizational failures, overwhelmed preparation and communication systems and inadequate statutory authorities. It was clear that improvements were needed in emergency management, incident response capabilities and coordination processes across the country.

From these conclusions, the 109th Congress revised federal emergency management policies vested in the President, reorganized FEMA and enhanced and clarified the mission, functions and authorities of the agency, and those of the Department of Homeland Security, its parent agency.

The new FEMA slogan? “Go Big, Go Early, Go Fast, Be Smart.”

“I feel like we’re much more ready today,” said Gailes. “We practice hard and we try to be proactive in working to implement our lessons learned not only during rigorous training, but in each real-world scenario as it occurs. You learn along the way and as systems are stressed you’re constantly making improvements, but the dual-status commander definitely works, and now, rather than waiting for the disaster to occur, we have the coordination and the funding available to move and preposition assets. We couldn’t do that before.”

Hurricane Sandy marked the first time that actual tactical control of National Guard and DoD active and reserve forces was given to a dual-status commander for a major, multi-state natural disaster, Gailes said. As the “New FEMA” began its response to Sandy, this new level of coordination led to what some might consider an awesome display of American might, ingenuity and community cohesiveness.

Marines from the 6th Communications Battalion used their 7-ton trucks to go where local police and fire vehicles could not to rescue 14 New Yorkers from a burning subdivision. A Navy Seabee stationed in Gulfport, Mississippi, during Hurricane Katrina had a chance to return the favor by assisting his fellow Americans in New York and New Jersey. Samaritan response units like Team Rubicon mobilized hundreds of American veteran support personnel.

With the help of dual-status commanders leading a truly coordinated local, state and federal response, the military’s Transportation Command was able to move 262 power restoration vehicles and 429 support personnel from western states to New York and New Jersey. The Army Corps of Engineers contributed 100 pumps that removed 475 million gallons of flood water from tunnels and basements, and the Defense Logistics Agency helped distribute 6 million meals and more than 8 million gallons of unleaded and diesel fuel in both states.

According to the commander of Northern Command, Army General Charles Jacoby, and the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Army General Frank J. Grass, the new system is designed to provide more assets—not less power—to the locally elected official.

“Nobody knows a state better than its governor, the individual elected by the people and accountable to them during their time of greatest need,” the generals wrote in a piece published on the Air National Guard website in March of 2013. “That is why the governor, working with the National Guard adjutant general, will continue to lead disaster response and recovery efforts within their state. This new dual-status commander allows them to do it better by ensuring all types of DoD support work together within the governor’s intent. It allows the president and secretary of defense to bring the weight of unique DoD capabilities and national capacity to bear when our citizens most need it, and when the interests of the entire country are at stake.”

Though the involvement of the military in relief operations is not a new concept, the shift to a dual-status commander structure to allow for the involvement of federal troops for the support of civil authorities does have some concerned. Fortunately, the military’s first test with this authority—Hurricane Sandy—demonstrated the positive potential of these legislative efforts.

“Although the dual-status commander concept is relatively new, it has already proven itself to be a powerful tool for improving responsiveness, command and control, continuity of operations and unity of effort,” Jacoby and Grass wrote. “Together, we will maintain an open dialog with the Council of Governors and state adjutants general to ensure the many lessons from Hurricane Sandy are indeed learned, incorporated into our planning and battle-tested during complex disaster exercises.

“When the next major disaster strikes, we will be even better prepared to serve the American people.”

–Joseph Andrew Lee is a USO multimedia journalist.

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