A National Guardsman’s Experiences During Hurricane Sandy, by FDO

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I’ll give you a little background about me. I was born, raised, and am currently living in New England. I have a B.A. in History and have just begun work on my M.A. in the same field of study. This past June marked four years in the National Guard, and I received my commission as a Field Artillery officer (13A) in 2013. Currently, I serve as a Battery Fire Direction Officer and am a graduate of Field Artillery Basic Officer Leader’s Course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and the U.S. Army’s Air Assault School. I have been reading the blog for a few months and am a huge fan. I’m far from where I want to be, as far as preparedness, but I’m confident I’ll get there.

I believe that every “prepper” or survival enthusiast has had their own personal “wakeup call”, be it a major/minor event, epiphany, or experience that motivated them to begin preparing for the worst. For me, that wakeup call came in October 2012, when I spent four days on SAD (State Active Duty) while my unit was activated during Hurricane Sandy. I’ll say right up front that from a “boots on ground” perspective, my participation in the relief efforts was pretty minimal. I didn’t pull anyone from a swollen river or man a checkpoint. I spent my time doing eight-hour rotations in our company’s TOC (Tactical Operations Center), assisting the staff by answering phones, producing a rest plan, coordinating movements, updating status boards, and yes, getting coffee. (The Dunkin Donuts down the street remained open through the entire storm, and God bless them for it.) This position allowed me to view the entire operation on a more strategic level, and it is having that perspective that allows me to write this article today.

I thought that by detailing my experiences as a Guardsman during an actual time of emergency, I might be able to provide some insight as to the Guard’s role in future, perhaps more catastrophic events, as well as illustrate the logistical issues that come along with activating even a single National Guard unit for emergency service. How would such knowledge be useful to you? Honestly, maybe it won’t be useful. Prepping and self-sufficiency go hand in hand; as you prep, you consciously or subconsciously condition yourself and your loved ones to stock, train, and prepare as though you will be on your own when the SHTF. So in all likelihood, many who read this are probably already in the mindset of depending on no one but yourself to get through hard times (as you should be). If that’s the case, I hope at the very least this article will provide readers with a point of view they don’t normally get to see and provide a dose of reality to those few readers that may still be prepping just enough to ensure they’ll survive until the “cavalry” shows up.

October 2012

The hurricane grew in strength as it made its way north, and the forecast was bad enough that I pretty much knew I was going to be called, especially once the governor declared a state of emergency. I first received a text message two days before Sandy was to hit our area from my commander, a Major (at the time I was attached to our battalion staff element and worked directly for the S-3, or Operations Officer) to be prepared to go when he called, so I packed my rucksack with enough gear to sustain me for 72 hours (old habits die hard) and waited. About a half day before the really bad weather was due to hit us, I got the promised phone call and got in my car to leave.

Lesson #1: Getting the word out will take time. First, the command team for that particular unit will need to contact everyone and get them to a centralized rally point. In our case, it was our own armory. That in itself will take several hours. The Commander or First Sergeant will notify the rest of the senior leadership, who in turn will ensure that the message gets passed down the chain of command to the lowest level. Phone trees are complicated and take time to put into action. Even if phone lines and cell towers are still functioning (and that could be a big if, depending on the situation), figure on at least an hour before Private Joe Snuffy gets the word that he needs to come in.

The drive down was pretty uneventful; it was raining pretty steadily, but the roads were more or less empty. I realized I was lucky in that regard, because although my route only took me on a major highway for about ten minutes of my hour-long trip, it would have been enough to stop me dead in my tracks had traffic been bad enough. The driving ban hadn’t yet gone into effect.

Lesson #2: Units won’t just materialize out of nowhere, and it may take most soldiers a while to get anywhere during an emergency. Everyone who is able (in my unit, first responders and others needed by their specific towns were excluded from the call-up) will need to pack up and make their way to the meeting point. Again, depending on the situation, that could prove difficult or impossible. National Guardsmen are not limited to certain units, based on their state of residence. A soldier living in New York, for example, could find himself drilling in Massachusetts or Connecticut, based on his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), or may voluntarily switch units due to a possibility for promotion not available in his current situation. The result is that most National Guard units have members that travel a considerable distance to come to drill. I currently drive 90 minutes to my armory every month, and that is without traffic and in good weather. I have several alternate routes I could utilize if need be, but only one does not involve traveling on a major highway or interstate. In some situations, such as a severe weather event, soldiers traveling to their respective units may be aided by a driving ban or restriction put in place by state government, which (in theory) will clear major roadways of all traffic minus emergency vehicles and other essential personnel. In a situation where mass panic or unrest has caused the public to attempt to evacuate/flee en masse, however, the roads will be a mess, and travel times will increase exponentially.

I got to my home station, signed in, filled out some paperwork, and waited for further orders. Pretty soon my commander told us that HHC (Headquarters & Headquarters Company), minus the battalion staff element, was going to move by bus to meet up with one of our companies in a town about 90 minutes away and work with them for the time being, and that I would be going with them. This necessity to move the unit introduced a whole new set of challenges.

Lesson #3: Military movements are complicated endeavors that take time. Hopefully, the situation will be such that operations can be conducted from the initial meeting location. If not, like in my case, there will have to be a plan to move soldiers, equipment, and supplies from the home station to wherever higher authority has ordered the unit to go. That means buses or transport trucks, either of which will require drivers that possess a valid military driver’s license and are qualified to drive that specific vehicle. (For example, my license states I am qualified to drive any number of Humvee variants but not a bus or truck.) The vehicles will have to be drawn from the motor pool, signed for, checked for maintenance issues, and fueled as necessary. As with any military operation, accountability of personnel and equipment will be crucial, so manifests will have to be drawn up for each vehicle. All of this, even if conducted hastily, will take time.

We arrived at our destination later that night. We were sharing the armory with an infantry company that called this their home station. Inside we grabbed cots and set them up in a locker room upstairs. Then we dropped our personal gear and began getting organized, based on the tasks we had been given as a unit.

Orders from higher said we were to standby in the armory until the worst of the storm had passed, and then we were to be prepared to conduct search and rescue operations. For us, this meant splitting up into various high-water rescue teams, which basically consisted of an LMTV (Light Medium Tactical Vehicle) and 6-10 soldiers armed with ropes, life jackets, and other equipment. To the best of my knowledge, these teams were never utilized; a small number of Air National Guardsmen arrived the same day we did and were given that same mission. Our next assignment ended up being our main effort for the time we were activated. We were located just a short drive from a major city with a less-than-stellar reputation when the lights were on. Once the power went out, things got even worse. We were ordered to, in conjunction with local law enforcement assets in that city, send presence patrols through various neighborhoods, establish checkpoints, and generally keep the peace until things returned to normal. I guess the thinking was that having a police car, a Humvee, and a couple of armed soldiers/LEOs at each checkpoint would help people feel more secure or, at the very least, discourage would-be troublemakers.

Lesson #4: It’s going to pay to blend in. I recently saw an episode of a certain show on the National Geographic channel that featured a prepper who stated his bug-out kit was modeled after military and SWAT-style equipment. It included a black tactical vest, various knives, and all black clothing, complete with bandana. His reasoning was that this look made him appear tough and, thus, would prevent civilians from messing with him in a SHTF scenario. This man certainly isn’t alone in his opinions; I see plenty of bug-out vests and kits that consist mainly of a plate carrier capable of carrying twelve AR mags, a sidearm, and all other varieties of tactical gear. However, all of these people seem to be ignoring a very pragmatic aspect of bugging out in any type of emergency; law enforcement, the military, or some mix of both will almost certainly be out in force. They’ll be performing a multitude of tasks, depending on the situation, but first and foremost in their minds, as it always is, will be security, both for themselves and the civilian population. With that in mind, how do you think you’ll be received when you come within sight of a manned checkpoint looking like Rambo and wearing a vest covered in knives and other dangerous tools? Or worse, how will you be perceived wearing a plate carrier and carrying an AR? It may sound harsh, but bug-out kits like those described above strike me as no more than the products of people with too much time and money on their hands, and active imaginations. The practice of buying and fawning over all this equipment is satisfying to them and their egos, but I think they’d be in for the worst kind of wake-up call in a real-life emergency. Urban preppers will have to consider this more than those who may be able to bug-out via more secluded routes (people in the suburbs or rural areas), as your location in a city pretty much guarantees that, unless you get out way ahead of the pack, you’ll be coming across a lot of people headed the same way you are, and there will be a lot of men in uniform with guns trying to keep the peace. Be prepared, by all means, but don’t do so in a way that will make you a target when the time comes for the real deal.

Things settled into more or less of a routine after the first day or so. Platoons would rotate into the city for checkpoint duty, and come back to the armory to rest and refuel. We in the TOC would keep track of who was where and monitor reports coming in from the city. This cycle continued until the entire unit was released from State Active Duty about a week and a half later. Whether or not the “show of force” strategy worked is up for debate; what I do know is that our guys in the city and the police force there were kept very busy in the first three or four days following the storm. On the one hand, there weren’t any (or at least I didn’t hear any reports of) instances of rioting or unruly crowds. People seemed content to hunker down in their homes and try to stay out of sight until things calmed down. Even if crowd violence was virtually non-existent, there were still enough individuals engaging in criminal activity to keep things busy. We had reports of shootings, stabbings, and other violent acts, which were dealt with by the police. I was surprised (but shouldn’t have been) to find that, at least from the news we were receiving, the most common crime committed during that first week seemed to be generator theft.

Lesson #5: Secure your generator(s)! Granted, not everyone’s plan involves the use of one, but should you decide to utilize one or more generators to power your home, bug-out, or bug-in location during a SHTF situation, make sure you secure it. Bigger and heavier units will obviously be harder to just walk off with, but regardless of your generator’s size, take the time to ensure that no one will be making off with it. A simple Google search will turn up lots of great suggestions on how to accomplish this, so I won’t go too in depth. Suffice it to say that simply plugging in a generator and leaving it outside to run is not your best plan of action; the responsibility of securing your home and its contents is yours and yours alone. Once something is stolen, it’s likely that you won’t see it again. Chain that generator if you want to keep it.

The generator example provides an excellent segue to…

Lesson #6: The National Guard won’t be making house calls. Regardless of the situation, we’re going to be busy. We’ll be keeping the roads open and safe. We’ll be conducting search and rescue operations if need be, and air assets might be flying in supplies and/or evacuating the wounded. We’ll be augmenting local law enforcement manning checkpoints and responding to civil disturbances. Depending on weather conditions, we may be shoveling hospitals and other essential areas out from under snow drifts, filling sandbags, or building fire breaks. On top of all that, we’ll need to maintain our own readiness by sleeping, eating, and getting “off the line” for a few hours at a time.

It’s true that the National Guard probably won’t be alone in responding to crises; agencies like FEMA, the Red Cross, and local law enforcement are just a few of the groups that would be there as well. All are designed to offer aid and assistance in times of emergency, but consider this– we were stretched thin during Sandy. Those pallets of bottled water and MREs we handed out were gone in a flash. We had pretty much the entire state mobilized for a storm that did its worst in the coastal areas and left the interior largely untouched (besides the prolonged power outages). Now consider the combined strength of all those agencies in your state, and your National Guard, and compare it to the overall population of your state. (Google is your friend on this one.) I’m no math whiz, but you should be coming up with a pretty small number.

With all of that in mind, how much priority do you think you will be given as an individual? Sandy was bad, obviously, but it could have been even worse, and it kept everyone involved in the relief effort extremely busy. I was lucky to be part of a group released after four days, but elements of my unit stayed on location for almost a week and a half following the storm. Even small-scale emergencies have the potential to affect thousands of people, easily stretching emergency preparedness resources very thin in a very short amount of time. The bottom line is that in any situation serious enough to warrant you implementing all or part of your survival/bug-in/bug-out plan (or whatever you choose to call it), odds are there will be far more people asking for help than offering it. The theft of your generator is going to be item #4,357 on a list of 10,000 things and complaints the police or National Guard will have to deal with during a disaster.

My biggest lesson, learned from my time on State Active Duty, was undoubtedly…

Lesson #7: Any event involving multiple state and federal agencies, including the National Guard, is going to have a lot of moving parts and a lot of red tape to cut through. During my rotations in the TOC, I witnessed firsthand the issues that plagued us as we tried first to get ourselves organized and then to coordinate our relief efforts with local law enforcement and other state agencies, and the resulting amount of time that elapsed before we were actually able to carry out the mission we had been assigned was staggering. Decisions had to pass through so many levels of command that even the smallest issues took hours to resolve. Who owned what vehicles, who was authorized to perform what mission, and so on. Did the infantry fall under us, or did we fall under the infantry? Colonel So-and-So said to be prepared to do this, but Major So-and-So said something completely different. The Major is in our chain of command, but the Colonel outranks him. At one point, we began packing up completely in preparation to move our command center to a nearby school on the orders of some higher up, though a move that never happened. Frustration abounded, and at times tempers flared. I, along with other non-essential personnel, was asked more than once to leave the room to allow for some spirited “discussions” amongst other members of the unit.

It was also a huge deal when we requested to carry our weapons during presence patrols. I think a lot of people figure that the Guard is authorized to lock and load whenever they think it is necessary. I can understand why they think that we’re a military organization, and our weapons and magazines are kept at our own armories. However, the fact of the matter is that arming Guardsmen during a state emergency so that they can keep order amongst the civilian population is a major decision with potentially huge consequences if something were to go wrong, and it was a decision that went all the way to the top of the chain of command; generals were arguing with other generals on this one. Meanwhile, events in the city we had been assigned to patrol continued to unfold, whether we were prepared to meet them or not.

Conclusion

As a military organization, the National Guard is unique in the sense that we perform dual Federal and State missions simultaneously; that is, we are expected to maintain a state of readiness that allows us to be called to active service for overseas missions, combat or otherwise, as well as be prepared to support state missions during times of emergency. Given the high operational tempo over the past twelve years due to the War on Terror, it is no surprise that the “emergency preparedness” mission has, by and large, taken a back seat to preparing National Guardsmen to go to war.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, however, and less National Guard units deploying overseas, we as a force will no doubt be attempting to play catch-up with regards to readiness in case of state activation, just as we are already cracking down on garrison-related issues, like grooming standards, tattoos, and physical fitness. Indeed, during my writing of this article, I received an email inviting me to attend a two-day course being put on by my state’s Emergency Management Agency to train Guardsmen on our Incident Command System, which is initiated in times of emergency. Such training is a step in the right direction, to be sure, but getting prepared will take time, and there is no guarantee that a SHTF scenario will wait for us to be ready.

Even if the National Guard as a whole is given adequate time to bring its emergency preparedness training up to speed, and establish SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for a variety of emergency situations, the basic process of activating Guardsman and getting them to a state of readiness outlined above will remain the same, as will the obstacles we will face. The fact of the matter is that, regardless of the situation, the Guard’s effectiveness will always be limited to some extent by logistical and administrative concerns, as well as the unique set of threats and challenges presented by every emergency. As the article describes, we had a fair amount of difficulties during Sandy. What drove me to begin prepping wasn’t so much the memory of those difficulties, however. It was the “what-if” factor of what I experienced. Yes, things were bad, but what if the storm had been worse? What if cell towers had been inoperable? What if the level of civil unrest had been greater in the city we patrolled?

The realization of how much worse things could have been keeps me dedicated to this lifestyle, and it is the memory of these and other “what-ifs” that serve as constant reminders as to why I prep.

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