The most recent hurricane season was not unprecedented in terms of the number of storms, but it was unprecedented in terms of damage, the commander of U.S. Army North at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston said in a recent interview.
Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria delivered a combination of blows that caused great damage in Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and the military learned a great deal about defense support to civil authorities in the process.
Thousands of military personnel from all components mobilized and deployed to help the affected areas, and Buchanan – as the Joint Force Land Component commander – was in the thick of it.
U.S. Army North is the Army component for U.S. Northern Command. It works hand in glove with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the three storms were the largest domestic incident response in the history of that agency. “It was much larger than Katrina in 2005,” Buchanan said. “It was many more days and from the total response of the government aspect, it was much larger.”
The swath covered by the storms contributed to the response.
Hurricane Harvey – a Category 4 hurricane when it hit the Texas coast – dropped record amounts of rain on Houston. Parts of the fourth largest city in the United States received more than 60 inches of rain.
Hurricane Irma – a Category 5 storm – hit the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Florida and Georgia.
Hurricane Maria – a second Category 5 storm – caused catastrophic damage in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
The storms hit close together, with Harvey lasting from Aug. 17 to Sept. 1, Irma lasting from Aug. 30 to Sept. 12, and Maria forming Sept. 16 and finally dissipating Sept. 30.
Officials said Harvey killed 82 people, Irma claimed 134 and the official death toll from Maria is 52.
The extent of the damage from all three storms was substantial and some officials estimate it could cost up to $200 billion.
The military response matched the size of the disasters. Thousands of National Guardsmen, Reservists and active duty personnel took part in search and rescue recovery operations.
Define the Problem
There were a lot of lessons learned from the response and defense support of civil authorities, Buchanan said, adding that he is putting them together for next year. “I believe that at the operational level you have to define the problem,” Buchanan said. “At the operational level, the guidance is usually broad. If you spend your energy solving a problem, but you don’t really know what the problem is you may be off to the races in the wrong direction.
“I should have involved my staff more in this process," he continued. “I internally defined the problem and I got a quicker answer, but I am not sure I couldn’t have gotten a better, more informed position.”
The three storms required different responses. The state emergency management agencies had different capacities, equipment and personnel. Texas and Florida have large emergency management agencies and large National Guard forces and the capacity to cover large incidents.
“In Texas, we sent a forward command post with about 28 guys, which we beefed up to about 80,” he said. With the main headquarters for U.S. Army North at JBSA-San Antonio, this acted as an extension of the command nearer the disaster area.
“In Florida, I had an even smaller footprint,” he said. “We sent about 10 guys with a lot of communications capability to link in with the dual-status commander and be essentially a liaison cell.”
But Puerto Rico really required something different, Buchanan said, including personal presence. He had to go to San Juan and had a much more robust headquarters.
In Puerto Rico, the island was completely overwhelmed. “It was overwhelmed first because it had weak infrastructure, it was vulnerable,” he said. “There were no underground power cables, for example, it was aboveground and it was old.”
The island was overwhelmed because of its small capacity and because it is isolated, the general said. “You can’t drive down I-10 or I-35 to bring in a bunch of stuff or people,” he said.
Finally, the power of the storms was extraordinary – two Category 5 hurricanes separated by just 10 days. “Maria was a devastating storm and it didn’t just glance off the island, it hit on the southeast corner and went across the island and exited on the northwest,” Buchanan said. “It affected literally every part of the island. If we had the same storm in Texas or Florida, the effects would have been the same.”
Puerto Rico was a mammoth effort, he said. “We flew 2,200 sorties of strategic lift flying in Puerto Rico,” the general said. “There were more than 2,300 rotary wing flight hours.”
National Guardsmen immediately responded and a Navy group centered around the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp sailed to the island as soon as it was safe enough to do so. National Guardsmen, sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen launched immediate search and rescue operations.
The hurricane cut the island off from its lifelines, so among the first tasks was reopening the airports and seaports.
Role of Culture in Recovery
The relief effort was initially a maritime command, but it switched to Buchanan's command. He said his initial lesson was that he needed to understand the culture. “Except for an overnight years before, I had never been in Puerto Rico,” he said. “We really have to understand what is going on with people if we want to be effective. In the end, it is all about dealing with people. As an outsider to Puerto Rico … it is easy to make judgments and snap decisions and that is dangerous.”
One aspect of the culture that jumped out to him was the power of community and the power of family. “It is far more important than it is in other areas of the United States,” the general said. “Once I recognized this, I was able to provide positive reinforcement when I saw neighbors helping neighbors, and then use that as a means to understand what was important to their culture.”
Buchanan said he learned that communicating with the community is an important aspect of the recovery process. “We were clearing the roads, but we were leaving the debris by the side of the road, and people wondered why,” he said. “Hauling the debris away would take time from the clearance operations. Hiring a local firm to haul away the debris is cheaper, and it pumps money into the economy. We had to communicate that.”
The work that followed the storms was led by Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello, who was in charge on the island, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which worked with Puerto Rican officials to determine what needed to be done. The military worked through those civilian agencies, and Buchanan said he sees no need for that to change.
A full after-action report is working through the system now, the general said. He wants any recommendations made in place well before hurricane season begins in the spring.