Army National Guard readies for hurricane, wildfire seasons
Stars and Stripes May 23, 2023
Top National Guard generals and other state and federal officials said Tuesday that they anticipate fewer hurricanes in 2023 than in recent years as they prepare for the official start of the season in the next few days.
Guard commanders from states most susceptible to the impacts of hurricanes were among those gathering in San Antonio as U.S. Army North hosted its annual hurricane season rehearsal of concept, or ROC drill, set to begin Wednesday, said Maj. Gen. William Prendergast, a deputy commander at U.S. Army North. The drill’s scenario — three late-season major hurricanes bearing down almost simultaneously on different parts of the United States — will test their ability to quickly respond to the storms and coordinate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which leads federal disaster response, and state authorities.
“It’s looking at how are we going to handle resources and how do we balance … as these [storms] are all going on at essentially the same time,” Prendergast said. “It’s a very complex conversation, and Lt. Gen. [John] Evans [commander of U.S. Army North] wants us to have these difficult conversations [in a training scenario], because it makes us better if something like this really ever happens. You never want to exchange business cards at the point of disaster, you want to build those friendships and relationships prior to the event happening — which is so critical.”
Thousands of National Guard troops have been called to duty in recent years for hurricane response as storms have grown more frequent and more powerful in the last decade. Meanwhile, thousands more Guard members have been activated to respond to wildfires, which have also grown more frequent in recent years, especially in the western United States.
National Guard operations have slowed somewhat from an all-time high workload in 2020, when troops were activated to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, civil unrest in all 50 states and Washington D.C., deploy for southern border operations, and assist in natural disasters including hurricanes and wildfires.
As of Tuesday, some 8,000 National Guard troops were supporting domestic operations including duties at the border, wildfire fights in Colorado and California, and river dredging operations in Puerto Rico to prepare for hurricane season there, said Brig. Gen. Jonathan Beddall, the vice director of the National Guard Bureau’s Joint Operations Center in Arlington, Va.
He expected the number of Guard members called to duty to increase in the summer months. Hurricane season begins June 1, and wildfire season typically is considered to begin in July, but fires have been occurring earlier in recent years.
Guard numbers could increase in the coming days. The generals spoke Tuesday as Super Typhoon Mawar barreled toward Guam, threatening a devastating direct hit on the U.S. island as soon as Wednesday with winds beyond 150 mph. Mawar was downgraded from a super typhoon but remains a powerful Category 4-equivalent.
More than 70 Army National Guard soldiers had been activated to respond ahead of the storm’s landfall, Beddall said. Additional National Guard troops were moving to Hawaii to assist in Mawar’s aftermath, he added.
The Atlantic Ocean hurricane season, which runs through November, was predicted to be below average for 2023 by Colorado State University, which produces an annual hurricane forecast that informs the federal government’s planning. CSU predicted 13 named storms for 2023, with six becoming hurricanes and two reaching major hurricane strength of Category 3 or higher.
It comes after a 2022 hurricane season that started slowly but saw 14 named storms, eight of which became hurricanes including two major hurricanes. Hurricanes Fiona and Ian struck Puerto Rico and Florida, respectively, as Category 4 storms in September and killed more than 150 people and caused more than $150 billion in damages, according to government estimates. CSU had predicted a busier hurricane season in 2022 after the prior two years saw record numbers of storms.
Prendergast said predictions can be helpful, but the Army does not rely on them to prepare to respond to storms.
“A prediction’s a prediction,” he said. “We have to be there when a governor declares a disaster.”
Meanwhile, wildland firefighting has proven one of the top missions for the National Guard in recent years. Beddall said Army National Guard soldiers racked up 130,000 days of firefighting in 2022.
On Tuesday, he said, more than 350 Army Guard members were on firefighting duty in California and Colorado.
Last year saw almost 69,000 wildfires in the United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, and increase from the almost 59,000 wildfires reported in 2021. Wildfires burned more than 7.5 million acres in 2022 and destroyed some 2,700 structures, including 1,261 homes, according to the fire center.
“We stand ready when a disaster occurs, and we attempt to prepare ahead of it,” Beddall said. “We work and live in these affected communities, and that is why many of our soldier join the Guard — to serve our families, our friends and our communities … for as long as we're needed.”