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OPINION

Troops have key allies when natural disasters strike

By RAYMOND MASON, JACK KLIMP, KALETH O. WRIGHT AND CARI THOMAS | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: October 20, 2020

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By now, we’re all too familiar with the devastating impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic since it came to our shores in mid-March: businesses closing by the thousands, workers losing jobs by the millions, and more American lives lost than were caused by World War I and the Vietnam War combined. America’s military families have not been immune. Even for those military families who may have escaped direct harm from the pandemic, it has still caused significant disruption to their daily lives: by pushing back long-planned permanent change of station (PCS) moves, throwing their children’s academic futures into disarray, and putting promotions, weddings, retirements and other life milestones on hold.

But all of the attention justifiably paid to the pandemic risks obscuring another significant threat to military families: the incredible power of hurricanes, fires, floods and other natural disasters. Case in point: Just weeks ago, two storms simultaneously made landfall along the Gulf Coast for the first time in a century. In total, 10 named hurricanes have already hit the continental United States, which has never happened before in one year. And the official 2020 “Hurricane Season,” which ends Nov. 30, is still at a dangerous point — even as California struggles to contain dangerous wildfires and the Midwest continues to clean up from this summer’s devastating line of tornadoes.

As federal and state resources are stretched to the breaking point by COVID-19, natural disasters have the potential to be costlier and more dangerous than ever this year. And in some ways, military families are more at risk for these impacts than the average American, given where many military bases are located. With this in mind, it is more important than ever that military families prepare for natural disasters ahead of time. Whether the threat is hurricanes in the Southeast or wildfires out West, taking proper precautions now and heeding official guidance can save time, money and most importantly, lives.

However, we all recognize that sometimes all the planning in the world can’t prepare us for what Mother Nature has in store. Thankfully, service members and their families in need of emergency financial assistance have options. America’s four Military Aid Societies — Army Emergency Relief, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Air Force Aid Society and Coast Guard Mutual Assistance — are set up to provide grants and zero-interest loans to offset costs associated with preparation, evacuation and recovery costs caused by natural disasters.

These emergency dollars — which can often be accessed in as little as 48 hours — can help pay for fuel, clothing, hotel and other urgent expenses. Today, Coast Guard Mutual Assistance is working to help the more than 1,000 Coast Guard families that were hit by Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Sally this summer — including the young family of a junior Coast Guard member, currently deployed to Bahrain, whose Louisiana home was completely destroyed. Given that water and power will likely not return for weeks or months, they are among the many still in desperate need of help.

Each year, as the familiar patterns of natural disasters wreak havoc across the nation, the relief societies we lead spring into action to help America’s military families. In 2019, Army Emergency Relief provided more than 5,000 soldiers with roughly $9 million in natural disaster-related assistance. When Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle in 2018, Air Force Aid Society provided a total of $6.5 million in emergency grants to nearly 5,000 airmen and their families — the largest single relief effort the organization had ever made in 78 years of service. Going back to 2005, when hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma hit the Gulf Coast, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society helped almost 6,000 families with about $2.6 million in post-disaster recovery assistance. As the Coast Guard supported the widespread rescue efforts of these hard-hit communities, Coast Guard Mutual Assistance distributed $3 million in direct aid to the families of these helpers affected by the storms.

Every time any of us turn on the TV and see footage of another natural disaster, we shudder. Each natural disaster is a tragedy for those who experience it, and many lives are never the same after the fact. Therefore, we strongly encourage all of America’s service members to take caution and prepare now, especially in these unprecedented times. However, please also remember that there are many resources available should a hurricane, fire or flood prove too great for any individual family to cope with it alone. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.

Retired Lt. Gen. Raymond Mason is director of Army Emergency Relief. Retired Lt. Gen. Jack Klimp is CEO of Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. Retired Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright is CEO of Air Force Aid Society. Retired Rear Adm. Cari Thomas is CEO of Coast Guard Mutual Assistance.