Mississippi Guard Applies Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina
By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
GULFPORT, Miss., Sept. 3, 2008 Hurricane Katrina provided valuable lessons three years ago that local, state and federal response agencies along the Gulf Coast were able to put to work for Hurricane Gustav this week, Army National Guardsmen providing relief efforts here said yesterday.
Tables and charts citing those lessons are posted in unit headquarters all across Mississippi. Though Hurricane Gustav was weaker than expected when it hit the shores of the Gulf Coast early Labor Day morning, the National Guard was ready, Army Sgt. Michael Webb of the Mississippi National Guard said.
“The planning was a lot better this time,” Webb said. “Every battalion in the state had a plan and knew exactly what they had to do. Even if Gustav had been as bad [as] or worse than Katrina, we were 10 times more prepared.”
Hurricane Katrina is the benchmark for all domestic response across the country, Army Col. Lee Smithson, the state’s joint task force director of military support, said.
“Our preparation for Katrina compared to our preparation now is radically different in a great way,” Smithson said.
As the director of military support, a position he also held during Hurricane Katrina, Smithson is the liaison between local, state, and federal emergency management agencies and the National Guard. His team is responsible for all domestic response planning and execution, he said.
“We tie in all of the interagency coordination and what the Guard’s role in domestic response is,” he added.
In the aftermath of Gustav, the state’s Guardsmen coordinated distribution points for food, water, fuel and ice. They had transport helicopters and rescue boats at their disposal. They had medical teams and evacuation vehicles ready at a moment’s notice, Smithson said.
Fortunately for the Guard and Mississippi Gulf residents, the state’s National Guard wasn’t needed as badly for Gustav as it was in Katrina’s aftermath. Katrina’s devastation was well beyond the citizen-soldiers’ imagination as they tried to grasp the repercussions of the Category 5 hurricane that eventually became the costliest and one of the most dangerous in U.S. history.
“We thought we knew what bad looked like, but until you’ve seen what the worst-case scenario is, you don’t know,” Smithson said. “It took us really two weeks to grasp the severity of the incident and to really respond to it. We’ve got it now, so we’re prepared for Katrina and a Katrina-like event before it ever happens.”
One aspect the Guard did differently this time was to pre-stage equipment and troops. The Guardsmen were alerted for their current mission Aug. 28 and began pre-positioning immediately at the Gulfport Army National Guard Readiness Center, the Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, and at Vancleave Middle School in Jackson County. They knew what the immediate needs would be because of their experience in Katrina, he said.
When Gustav reached the shore, local, state and federal emergency management teams already had a good idea of what areas were going to be flooded and where people were most likely to be stranded, the colonel said.
“We were prepared to go in there knowing what areas were going to be flooded and what wouldn’t,” he said. “We were concentrating our efforts where they were actually needed.”
The Mississippi Guard found nearly 30 people stranded because of flooding in Hancock County. Technically, they only rescued four, but that was because the others chose to stay at their homes and wait for the water level to drop, he explained.
Because of their experience with Katrina, Gulf Coast states’ Guardsmen and emergency response agencies are better prepared for potential natural disasters. But Smithson said that although their capacity for responding to disasters is improved, the most important thing the National Guard brings to the table is continuity with the local community.
“When we talk about capabilities, the military doesn’t bring anything to the table that no one else can do,” he explained. “It’s not like going into a combat zone where we’re the fighters. Law enforcement is here, so we’re not bringing anything new there. Humanitarian assistance is there. But when the public sees people in uniform, their fears are pretty much erased.”
The weaker-than-expected hurricane has allowed most of Mississippi’s second-largest city to resume near-normal functions. The highways are bustling with traffic, and many local shops, retail outlets and restaurants are operating.
Officials with the Mississippi National Guard’s joint headquarters here said they expect local authorities to have full control of the situation by as early as tomorrow.