Local authorities take lead on storm response
September 3, 2008
A massive Defense Department response plan had been put into motion by the time Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Gulf Coast.
In the end, however, state and local authorities, including the Louisiana National Guard, were able to handle most of the problems caused by the storm, U.S. military officials said.
"There was [some] need for federal assistance, but we were prepared to do more," said Don Manuszewski, a spokesman for the Defense Coordinating Element for Region 6 of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Before the storm, Army satellite trucks were flown into Louisiana to provide radio, telephone and Internet capabilities for emergency responders working in blacked-out areas. The military contracted aircraft to fly people, including nursing home residents, out of flooded and endangered areas.
Troops were also prepared to perform aerial search and rescue missions, set up mobile hospitals and clear major routes so local responders could get to where they were needed. But Tuesday, after the storm had passed, a state-led effort by the Louisiana National Guard’s 256th’s Brigade Combat Team appeared to be the most visible of the military’s on-the-ground efforts in the affected areas.
"[The storm] was well within the capabilities of the state and of the National Guard. There’s a lot of capabilities out there in the civilian sector," said Patti Bielling, a spokeswoman with San Antonio-based U.S. Army North, from the unit’s operational command post at England Airpark in Alexandria, La.
Bielling said that teams led by local police and firefighters — and not federal authorities — spearheaded the response.
"A lot of what we do is posturing to be there to back them up," Bielling said. "The fire chiefs and police chiefs — they know the areas best. They have plans and structures in place to respond."
Days before the storm came ashore approximately 70 miles southwest of New Orleans, a 70-person team from U.S. Army North deployed to Louisiana to coordinate work by the U.S. Northern Command, which oversees the military’s activity in North America.
Troops and assets were organized, including a Canadian CC-177 Globemaster transport plane as part of a recently signed U.S.-Canada bilateral emergency relief effort. Staging areas for transport and supplies were formed throughout the Southeast and units were put on alert.
"We always want to be prepared, but are grateful when we’re not needed," Bielling said.
Manuszewski, whose office helps coordinate the efforts between the Defense Department and FEMA, said that while emergency coordination had improved since the maligned response in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina, evacuees also were more cooperative.
"Sometimes they were worried, but they seemed to understand this was an emergency," Manuszewski said. "We were there to help them and they were appreciative."
The military might get another chance to mobilize its emergency response plans as Hanna, a hurricane that pummeled the Bahamas on Tuesday, was forecast to threaten the East Coast.