Know Your Military

Response to Catastrophe Would Require Unified Effort

Oct. 17, 2019 | BY David Vergun

Though the United States has yet to experience a complex catastrophe in which millions of people are displaced, killed or injured, the Defense Department and other agencies have to be ready to respond should a catastrophic event occur, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense said.

A man makes remarks.
Salesses Remarks
Robert G. Salesses, deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, speaks at an Association of the United States Army panel on “Preparedness for a Complex Catastrophe,” Oct. 16, 2019, in Washington.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 191016-D-UB488-001

Robert G. Salesses spoke yesterday at an Association of the United States Army panel on "Preparedness for a Complex Catastrophe" in Washington.

Salesses laid out some possible catastrophic scenarios: 

  •  The New Madrid Fault along the Mississippi River in Missouri and Arkansas could produce a massive earthquake, as it did in the early 19th century, when very few people lived in the area. 
  • The Cascadia Subduction Zone on the West Coast could experience a massive earthquake, as it did in the early 18th century.
  • A weapons-of-mass destruction attack.

Under the Defense Support of Civil Authorities authorization, the Defense Department would contribute in a massive way to rescue, relief and recovery efforts in a complex catastrophe, he said.

Although all of the service branches could be involved, some of the commands and agencies spearheading the effort would be the Defense Logistics Agency, U.S. Transportation Command and the Army Corps of Engineers. In addition, the U.S. Northern Command would synchronize efforts in North America, and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command would do the same for Hawaii and U.S. territories in the Pacific, Salesses said.

Two people in protective suits use a measuring tool.
Chemical Attack Training
Army Sgts. Olga M. Usova and Rebecca Mayo, 31st Civil Support Team, train for entering an abandoned building where there may be chemical and biological agents, at Smyrna, Del., Jan. 19, 2019.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Leia Tascarini
VIRIN: 190118-A-UN364-0099

Installations themselves could also be huge providers of transportation, logistics and personnel, he added.

The response, however, would not be DOD's alone, he emphasized. DOD would need to be part of a unified effort within the government.

One of the most important agencies that the department has worked with is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Salesses said. FEMA has taken the lead in past emergencies, with DOD taking a supporting role.

The departments of Energy, Transportation and Health and Human Services would also be involved, he said. DHHS would activate its Public Health Service doctors and providers, but in a complex catastrophe, DOD's medical personnel and assets would be deployed along with them.

Two men carry sandbags.
Placing Sandbags
Air Force Airman Dan Jones and Air Force Tech. Sgt. Anthony McKee, both from the Illinois Air National Guard, carry sandbags to place along a levee created to protect houses in East Cape Girardeau, Ill., July 11, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brian Ellison
VIRIN: 190711-F-ET407-262

Salesses said state and local governments would contribute assets along with the National Guard and the private sector.

A unified effort, he said, would include a coordinated assessment of the impacts of the disaster and competing priorities. Command and control would need to be established, and capabilities and requirements would need to be identified and allocated.

To prepare for such a complex undertaking, DOD has been building and sustaining partnerships and relationships with federal, state and local agencies, Salesses  said, and exercises are periodically held to test the coordination and response.

A helicopter flies over a body of water with a bucket suspended underneath by a cable.
Bucket Training
Members of the West Virginia Army National Guard's 150th Aviation Regiment complete helicopter bucket training at Camp Dawson, W. Va., Oct. 10, 2019.
Photo By: Edwin Wriston, Army National Guard
VIRIN: 191010-Z-FC129-202C

Operations in response to hurricanes, wildfires and flooding also provide a test of that effort, but the effort would need to be scaled way up in a complex catastrophe, Salesses said.