National Guard Increases Sandy Response, Sends Reinforcements To NY, NJ

11/01/2012 06:26 pm ET | Updated Nov 02, 2012
  • David Wood Senior Military Correspondent, The Huffington Post

WASHINGTON -- The National Guard is sending reinforcements into New York and New Jersey, more than doubling the number of Guardsmen delivering food and water, knocking on doors to check on residents, hauling generators and fuel and flying reconnaissance assignments.

The expanded missions for the Guard come as the response to superstorm Sandy shifts from emergency rescue to massive clean-up and helping restore basic services.

In New York, an initial emergency response team of 1,000 National Guardsmen has been beefed up to 2,800 soldiers, mainly to distribute food and water provided by FEMA, to make sure residents are safe and to see whether they are in need of food or refilled prescriptions. Air Guardsmen are flying highway and railway officials to inspect transportation facilities.

In New Jersey, Guardsmen are bulldozing debris, setting up emergency generators, delivering fuel and manning emergency shelters.

On paper, at least, the state-run National Guard forces of New York and New Jersey could deploy many hundreds more soldiers and airmen out into the storm's aftermath. New York lists 10,200 in its Army National Guard units and another 6,000 in the Air Guard.

"But you only deploy the forces that are required, for the missions that are requested," said Eric Durr, a spokesman for the New York Guard, on Thursday. "Otherwise, people are standing around doing nothing but getting in the way."

The disaster relief system that's been in place for years has a lot of moving parts, but is relatively simple. Local officials are in charge, and their requests for specific kinds of help are routed through the local city or county office of emergency management to the state emergency operations center. There, requests are prioritized and representatives from state agencies, FEMA, the National Guard and federal departments such as transportation and health and human services are assigned specific jobs.

But local officials are in charge. "Even when the president shows up, the fire chief is the man," said Durr.

Despite some initial yelps for assistance -- in a well-known instance, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer bellowed for National Guard help Monday as the storm swamped her city -- the system seems to be working relatively well.

"Does that mean there's not somebody out there with needs we don't know about? Absolutely not," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, vice chief of the National Guard bureau outside Washington. The bureau oversees all National Guard budgets and operations.

"But I'd say the enterprise is postured well," Lengyel told The Huffington Post Thursday. "My general impression is this is a very well orchestrated big-picture response to a big storm."

The Army and Air National Guard forces are hybrid state-federal militias whose roots reach back before the Revolution. Normally under the control of state governors, the Guard is almost entirely funded and equipped by the federal government, and the troops are trained to the same standard as active-duty personnel.

With the governors' permission, National Guard troops can be federalized and sent on national missions under the control of the Defense Department. At present, for example, the New York Guard has over 2,000 soldiers and airmen deployed on federal missions, including in Afghanistan and Kuwait.

But it is their governors who mobilize and direct National Guard troops in domestic emergencies such as Sandy.

Across the worst-damaged areas of New York and New Jersey, National Guard ground troops began arriving Tuesday, many of them in high-wheeled Light Medium Tactical Vehicle trucks designed to operate in flood waters.

In Hoboken, N.J., a squad of LMTV arrived about 11 p.m. Tuesday, to the relief of local residents.

On its Facebook page, Hoboken's city government announced, "The National Guard Has Arrived." 1,082 people liked the comment. "Thank the Lord," one resident responded. On Wednesday morning, Hoboken resident Jeffrey Lacouture reported, "I witnessed several dozen trucks go west from city hall, and bring back dozens of residents from the flood waters."

"The operation appears to be successful," he wrote.

But even earlier, the Guard was responding to emergencies.

On Virginia's Eastern Shore, a National Guard soldier carried a woman on his back about 200 yards through chest-deep water on Monday, according to a report in The Virginian-Pilot.

Duty officers at the National Guard's Joint Operations Center outside Washington were startled Monday to receive a Tweet for help from a New Jersey coastal resident in danger of being swamped. The SOS along with his address went immediately to the New Jersey Guard, which dispatched help: the man was rescued, Guard officials said.

If there were bottlenecks along the chain of command, they appear to have been at local city or county emergency operations centers where operators were inundated with demands for help -- and sometimes with water as well.

"All resources during a disaster like this are pretty much stressed," said Mary Goepfert, of the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management. "I don't know what the problems were -- we're still in the middle of it!"

Anticipating that local emergency operations centers could get swamped, the National Guard has stationed an officer at each one -- in New York, for example, a guardsman is stationed at the New York City Office of Emergency Management. If a request comes in that the Guard can quickly meet, that request goes straight to the National Operations Center to be assigned out to a specific unit, officials said.

The system is designed to use Guard assets -- personnel as well as vehicles, aircraft and other gear -- efficiently. Guardsmen activated for Sandy, for instance, are paid the same rate as active-duty troops. A sergeant E-5 with six years of experience makes $2,707.38 a month, or about $90 a day in basic pay, plus allowances. The cost is picked up by the federal government.

But perhaps not for long. Anticipated cuts in the defense budget would affect the National Guard. Already, the Pentagon has tried to mothball some of the Air Guard's F-16 and A-10 strike fighters, though the governors have fought the Pentagon back to a standstill.

But sequestration, the congressionally mandated automatic budget cuts that could take place in January, would cut deeply into National Guard Operations. Gen. Frank Grass, who recently took over as the chief of the National Guard, forecast that such cuts would be a "disaster."

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The Huffington Post is eager for insights from our community, especially people with experience in power, infrastructure and engineering, on the adequacy of emergency preparation in advance of Hurricane Sandy, and the degree to which past disasters have informed adequate planning and construction. Please send a note to sandytips@huffingtonpost.com with insights and suggestions for the important questions that need to be asked of relevant private sector and government officials, and point us toward stories that need to be pursued.

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