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American Forces Press Service

Northcom, FEMA Build on Hurricane Sandy Response Lessons

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24, 2013 – Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., commander of U.S. Northern Command, hosted Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate yesterday to explore how to build on lessons from Hurricane Sandy to improve their response to future disasters -- particularly complex catastrophes.

Fugate, who led the Sandy response, praised the military support provided through Northcom, which provides defense support to civil authorities as one of its core missions.

The challenge now is to take lessons learned from the response to fix areas that need improvement and improve processes that went well, Jacoby and Fugate told reporters during a joint news conference following their meeting at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

"We are not dwelling on the past as much as we are thinking about the future and ensuring we take the things we learn over time and push forward into the challenges that lie ahead for us," Jacoby said. "We had very, very fruitful discussions today that I think in the long term will end up being of great benefit to our citizens across the country."

One of the lessons identified during the Hurricane Katrina response in 2005 and reinforced during Hurricane Sandy last year is the importance of preparation, he said.

Jacoby recognized an extensive training and exercise program, with hurricane preparations throughout the interagency community beginning around Jan. 1 for each year's hurricane season, which starts June 1. "We have a very deliberate process where we work together," he said.

Another lesson from past disasters, the importance of pre-positioning assets where they are expected to be needed, also benefited the Hurricane Sandy response, Fugate noted. "You don't wait until [the state governors] say they need something to start moving it," he said. "You get there early, you move stuff early, all under the presumption that if [a situation] is bad, we want to be able to support it. You can't wait until it is overwhelming."

From a Defense Department standpoint, Jacoby said, the biggest challenge is not to be late to meet communities' needs. "We have the strongest, most resilient communities, towns, counties [and] cities across the land," he added. "But when they need the Department of Defense, they really need them."

So as Hurricane Sandy roared north along the Atlantic coast in October, Jacoby said, he ensured senior Defense Department leaders understood the potential scope and scale of the operation they could be called on to support. They, in turn, gave him the authority to move a full range of assets before the storm made landfall. That included search-and-rescue assets that proved vital during the response, he noted.

"We have all learned to get our search-and-rescue assets pre-positioned early and in place [to] minimize loss of life," the general said. "In Sandy, we were able to get the maximum number of resources for search-and-rescue forward early and had good effect."

Hurricane Sandy also validated the value of the new dual-status commander construct, which authorizes a designated National Guard flag officer to command active-duty, reserve and National Guard forces, Jacoby said. Dual-status commanders led joint task forces in New Jersey and New York, providing a unified response that is not possible when military forces report to separate commanders, he added.

Fugate praised the positive contribution the construct made to the Sandy response.

"It meant being able to bring a lot of resources to bear quicker," he said. "It allowed the president and defense secretary to provide resources faster and with greater unity of effort to a domestic response."

Jacoby said he hopes to continue improving on the arrangement and to build on other lessons learned during Hurricane Sandy.

"We are not going to spend too much time congratulating ourselves on Sandy," he said. "We need to focus on how to get better and continue to meet the expectations of the American public."

Fugate said the huge scale of Hurricane Sandy highlighted a shortcoming in how FEMA calls on Northcom to support disasters -- particularly large, complex ones that affect multiple states. In some cases, he said, FEMA had defined its requirements so narrowly that it limited support the military could provide.

"I need to make sure [the Northcom commander] has the mission requirements large enough, scoped broad enough, to allow a flexible response without being so prescriptive to say, 'This state, this mission,' as much as, 'This mission across multiple states,'" he said.

That could prove critical in the event of a disaster even larger than Sandy, Fugate said. "We need to understand that as bad as Sandy was, that may not be the benchmark that we need to limit ourselves to," he said. "There are threats and potential disasters that could be even larger."

As FEMA explores this concept, Northcom is busy applying the lessons from its hurricane response missions to another type of disaster it's regularly called on to support: wildfires that rage beyond the capabilities of state and local first responders.

"Like [during] hurricane season, where we begin early and build relationships and we exercise and work together ahead of time, we are instituting a similar process for firefighting," Jacoby told reporters. "We are building the team ahead of time so the relationships are there. We are not exchanging business cards with our partners at the time of the fire, but well before the fire."

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